Editor’s note: Jessica Kuczka passed away two months after this story was published.
It was supposed to be their first Thanksgiving as a married couple.
Jacob and Jessica Kuczka, both 26, met in St. Louis, their hometown, a little more than five years ago. He was a security officer in the museum where she was an art gallery attendant.
They’d come first to Savannah, so Jessica could pursue a degree in historic preservation at SCAD. Jacob worked for a security company in Bluffton.
After graduation, Jessica took a job with the Port Royal Historic Foundation. Jacob joined the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office as a deputy.
They married in March on Hilton Head and were looking forward to their new lives and the baby they were expecting after the first of the year.
They were going to keep Thanksgiving quaint and quiet. They’d planned to hang out, have dinner, and watch movies.
With both of their families back in St. Louis, it was just the two of them.
“We have enough fun, just me and her,” Jacob said this week.
But when he got home from work that morning, Jacob found Jessica, then seven months pregnant with baby Oliver, in bed with a nosebleed.
“It was kind of weird but we didn’t think anything of it,” he said.
Jessica got dressed and the two sat down to breakfast.
That’s when she had the first seizure.
The couple tried to go back to bed and relax. Then the second seizure hit. Jessica stopped breathing and her skin turned pale. Jacob called 911. Jessica was staring off into the distance and didn’t answer Jacob when he spoke to her.
Before paramedics could arrive, she had a third seizure.
She was taken to Beaufort Memorial Hospital before eventually being airlifted to the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, about 80 miles away.
“I was worried about Jessica and when she got into the helicopter and flew away, that’s when it hit me that this may affect Oliver, too,” Jacob said. “There’s two people I have to worry about now.”
Jacob couldn’t ride in the helicopter, so he quickly packed what he could in a small bag, got in his car, and rushed to Charleston.
Doctors there discovered Jessica had suffered two brain aneurysms and needed emergency surgery.
Since that day, Jessica has undergone at least five operations to stop bleeding in her brain, including a high-risk, open brain surgery that required a portion of her skull be removed.
Another surgery was the C-section that delivered Oliver.
“Throughout this whole pregnancy, Jessica had always said if something happened to save the baby,” Jacob said.
Now, that decision had to be made.
“It’s sounds kind of morbid to me,” he said. “Pick your son or your wife that you want to save. That was honest to God the hardest time of my life.”
Jacob’s decision ultimately saved both mother and child.
Born nine weeks early on November 29, Oliver weighed four pounds.
Although premature, Jacob said Oliver is a fighter. He’s already undergone several blood transfusions and is responding well to all of the procedures and treatments he’s had to endure.
Now, all of his vitals are within average range except for his respiratory rate.
That, Jacob said, is a common complication from being born prematurely since Oliver’s lungs had not fully developed.
Slowly he is needing less and less help breathing. He now uses only a nasal cannula. He also has jaundice, another complication associated with premature births, and doctors are continuing to monitor his blood platelets to make sure he doesn’t need another transfusion.
“He’s such a fighter,” Jacob said. “He’s so strong.”
As Oliver stays in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, Jessica is in the Neuroscience Intensive Care Unit.
Her memory has been affected and she has a hard time speaking and forming sentences, Jacob said.
But on Sunday, she put three important words together.
That’s the day she got to meet her baby boy for the first time. She looked at Oliver, then at Jacob and said: “I love you.”
“I know she knows that’s our son,” Jacob said. “That was the happiest time of my life. Meeting her and marrying her are always going to be great milestones, but that was the best.”
Every morning, Jacob drives to the hospital around 8 a.m. and stays until at least midnight.
And every single day, he’s working with Jessica to help her remember.
Throughout the day, he shows her pictures — pictures from their March wedding on Hilton Head, pictures of normal days at home, pictures of their families back in St. Louis, and pictures of friends, both past and present.
“At first she didn’t know much of it,” Jacob said. “But the last couple of days, she has started recognizing some people.”
There’s still a long way for the new family of three to go. Oliver and Jessica will be in the hospital for at least six more weeks, but Jacob says they’re both fighting hard.
They’ve gotten an outpouring of love and support from all over.
More than $12,500 has been donated to the family to help with medical costs and living expenses since neither Jacob or Jessica can work right now, and for baby supplies for Oliver.
Deputies and command staff at the Sheriff’s Office have also visited them in the hospital, acting as “family outside of family,” Jacob said.
“Honestly, I can’t imagine anything more devastating than what we’ve been through and what we’re still going through,” he said.
“But, no matter how hard it gets, there’s always a way to make it out.”