Couple keeps newborn’s memory alive

Malachi Barrett
The Grand Rapids Press

Grand Rapids — A day after he was born, Hunter Naffziger endured open heart surgery. At 4 days old, his heart stopped.

Machines kept him alive. They pumped blood through his veins and air into his lungs, while his tiny body tried to heal.

Complications and infections required procedures and medication; some used to dull pain, others to keep the newborn from wriggling free from an array of medical equipment.

Hunter’s chest cavity remained open after the first of what would quickly become 41 procedures. Weighing not much more than 8 pounds and only a few weeks old, his little body didn’t have enough skin to cover a heart swollen with infection.

“It just, every day went farther south,” said Ashlee, his mother.

The Naffzigers are part of more than 90 lawsuits against Wolverine World Wide for damage to health and property after exposure to water allegedly contaminated by tannery sludge dumping near groundwater wells.

Wolverine is accused of disposing of polyfluoroalkyl substances called PFAS or PFCs, once used in 3M Scotchgard to waterproof shoes at its former Rockford tannery.

The company denied allegations in the Naffziger’s lawsuit, which claims PFAS exposure caused pregnancy complications that killed their newborn son.

Before Hunter was born, Ashlee and her husband Doug struggled with infertility issues. They had a miscarriage once before, years earlier.

At the time, the couple just thought they were unlucky.

“We kind of gave up trying, and then magically got pregnant,” Ashlee said.

A few weeks into Ashlee’s second trimester, doctors found Hunter was developing with a heart defect. Doctors found holes in his heart, and the two main arteries leaving the precious organ were reversed.

The Naffzigers were told their son could require surgery immediately after being born, but it wasn’t a sure bet.

“I never ever once thought we would come home without him,” Ashlee said. “It never crossed my mind.”

Halfway through her pregnancy, Ashlee developed severe pre-eclampsia and was put on medication to keep her blood pressure low. She was hospitalized at University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital for pregnancy-induced high blood pressure.

Preeclampsia has been linked in human studies to PFAS exposure.

According to the lawsuit, Hunter needed to stay in utero for 37 weeks so his lungs and body could develop enough to withstand the heart surgery. Ashlee underwent an emergency caesarean section at 36 weeks.

Hunter was born at 9:33 a.m. on April 4, 2015, but the new parents weren’t able to see him until later that evening. He was born early and sick, Ashlee said, but was mischievous and just a bit naughty too.

“He was always very curious; we could see him looking around,” Ashlee said. “He definitely had that spunky attitude. Very grumpy but responded well to us. We couldn’t hold him after surgery. We didn’t hold him for six weeks.”

Days after the heart surgery, Hunter “died” for the first time. From then on, he needed machines to perform his body’s basic functions.

Soon, Hunter’s throat began to contract around a ventilator that helped him breathe. His kidneys became infected and rounds of procedures began to leave Ashlee and Doug facing a grim realization.

After just six weeks of life, Hunter’s doctors presented his parents with an impossible choice: Perform a risky tracheotomy to let him breathe easier or let him die peacefully.

“At that point we were like ‘this is just going to be his life,’” Ashlee said. “Who knows how long he would have been there?”

Doug said it took a few days to come to a decision.

“As parents you would want to fight for your children and to do everything possible for your children, because you don’t want to see them in pain,” he said. “At that point, we (needed) to not be selfish.

“Not knowing what the outcome of that might be, if we had done it, if he had died on an operating table and not around us it would have been a lot harder to deal with.”

The procedure was scheduled to take place in the morning so Hunter could be surrounded by family members and their pastor. He began having issues late into the night, so the couple agreed to do it sooner and spare him more pain.

“We decided that night,” Ashlee said. “Just the two of us and him. We had the doctors come in and they removed (his) supports. He took one or two breaths, and that was it. Then we got as much time as we wanted with him.”

“And then you leave. Which is the hardest thing you have to do.”

Hunter died on May 21, 2015.

Ashlee said she was exposed to PFAS while growing up at her parent’s home in the 9000 block of Algoma Avenue in Rockford. She lived there from 1999 to 2012, before moving in with Doug and getting married.

The Wolverine PFAS investigation began last year with discovery of contaminated wells near the company’s old sludge dump on House Street in Plainfield Township. The investigation has since spread to Algoma Township and the city of Rockford.

Ashlee’s family home was tested after news broke about the House Street dump and the company’s former tannery grounds in Rockford. Results showed 255 parts per trillion of PFAS in the home’s well — more than three times the state’s enforceable cleanup criteria for PFOS and POA.

“I think that if (Wolverine) would have disposed of it properly we wouldn’t be sitting here,” Doug said. “For all I know we could have our 3-year-old here.”

Ashlee had her blood tested for PFAS contamination, but the results haven’t come back.

The lawsuit contends that Wolverine disposed of tannery waste into the ground for decades, which leached into the groundwater.

“It kind of made sense, why we had the issues prior to having Hunter what was going on. It took us four years to figure that out,” Ashlee said.

At least one other death is alleged to have been caused by Wolverine’s tannery waste.

Sandy Wynn-Stelt filed a wrongful death lawsuit after her husband, Joel R. Stelt, 61, died March 26, 2016. She lives across the street from the company’s old sludge waste dump at 1855 House Street NE.

Wolverine asked all lawsuits in Kent County Circuit Court, including allegations related to at least two deaths, be dismissed. If the cases go forward, the company wants them included in a class-action lawsuit in federal court.

Attorney James Moskal said Wolverine acted appropriately under the law at the time when the chemical dumping in Plainfield Township took place.

“All acts and conduct of Wolverine, as alleged in the complaint, conformed to and were pursuant to statutes, government regulations and industry standards, based upon the state of knowledge existing at all material times alleged in the complaint,” Moskal, an attorney for Warner, Norcross & Judd, wrote in court documents.

Wolverine denies role in newborn’s death; family blames PFAS dump.

“At all relevant times Wolverine disposed of waste containing PFAS, it reasonably believed the waste to be safe. At the time Wolverine disposed of the waste, it was standard practice in the industry to dispose of waste in the same manner as Wolverine.”

The couple said they were reluctant to sue at first. Their Grand Rapids home is covered in framed images of Hunter, but they are adapting to life without him after two-and-a-half years.

They even have a second son, Grayson. Ashlee had preclampsia again while she was pregnant, but she gave birth to a happy, healthy and “spunky” boy about 9 months ago.

Ashlee and Doug aren’t certain what caused their son’s death, but both feel a duty to find out what did. If it is directly related to PFAS exposure allegedly caused by Wolverine, Doug said those who are responsible need to be held accountable.

Nothing would make their family whole again, he said, but that would help.

“I want it known that we’re not doing this for a settlement,” Ashlee said. “It’s about bringing awareness to what’s going on. At the end of the day even if we don’t win our case, we’re still going to honor our son in any way possible.”

Doug continued to work at a Belmont filter business while his wife and son were in the hospital, making trips to Ann Arbor during the week and on weekends.

He still regrets not spending more time with his son. Almost three years later, the pain comes rushing back as he talks about it.

The parents prefer to stay optimistic instead of focusing on their anger and sadness. They have a tight grasp on the memories made during their short time with Hunter.

A large wooden box holds keepsakes and mementos from his life – parking slips from the hospital; small wool caps knitted by loved ones; letters and get well cards are kept inside.

A bracelet has a small charm for each procedure or surgery Hunter endured. It’s close to 2 feet long.

The parents continue to honor his memory in other ways. Each Christmas they collect donations for infant blankets and deliver them to the hospital. Family members still send him cards for the holiday.

“He was a part of our life and our first son,” Ashlee said. “We always wanted our next child to know they have a brother. He was a huge part of our life and impacted our whole family. He deserves to be remembered and talked about as much as possible.”