Struggling family stunned by 2-year-old son's death

Sunday, December 23, 2007
Ethan Butler's grave sits alone in a corner of the family cemetery near Sedgewickville, Mo. Family members dug the grave, which is a painful tradition. (Kit Doyle)

PATTON, Mo. -- They buried Ethan Butler in the southwest corner of the family cemetery Nov. 15, his mother Jennifer's birthday. In family tradition, Jennifer's brothers dug Ethan's grave just as they dug their father's five years earlier.

Ethan's family was already struggling before his death at not quite 3 years old left them in mourning.

Last April while they were playing at a park, a fire burned down their home in Tamaroa, Ill., destroying all their possessions. Jennifer and Virgil Butler moved their family back to Missouri to be near their own families.

Their children require some caring for.

Their oldest child, 6-year-old Brooklyn, has hydrocephaly, spina bifida and epilepsy. She attends the Parkview State School in Cape Girardeau weekdays.

Jennifer Butler held her youngest child, Sara, on Dec. 12 at their home near Marquand, Mo. Butler's 2-year-old son, Ethan, died unexpectedly and was buried by the family on her birthday, Nov. 15.

Daniel, 5, is epileptic.

Ethan's twin died before birth. Ethan himself was premature at birth, weighing only 1 pound 11 ounces. His lungs hadn't fully developed. He spent his first year on a heart-lung monitor because he sometimes stopped breathing. He remained small.

The Butlers' youngest child, 1-year-old Sara, is perfectly healthy. "Sara and Ethan were best friends because he was so short," Jennifer said. "They were about the same height."

That Sunday morning last November, Virgil went to wake up the children while Jennifer cooked breakfast. Daniel came running to her. "Mommy, Ethan won't wake up," he said.

Ethan's feet were blue. "He was dead," Jennifer said.

She started using the CPR techniques on him she'd learned just last summer. He didn't respond. They called 911.

Virgil, 26, and Jennifer, 24, were both unemployed, and the family's car wasn't running. A neighbor saw Jennifer giving CPR outside the mobile home as they frantically waited for an ambulance. Her husband drove them the 15 miles to Madison Medical Center in Fredericktown, Jennifer giving Ethan CPR all the way there.

The hospital restarted Ethan's heart and put him on life support. He was flown to Cardinal Glennon Hospital in St. Louis. Tests the following day found no brain activity. When doctors removed the life support system, Jennifer held Ethan as he passed away for the second time in two days.

The Bollinger family cemetery outside Sedgewickville was built in 1938. Jennifer's brother Glenn helped dig Ethan's grave. "It was the hardest thing I ever had to do," he said, choking on the words.

A plastic marker provided by the funeral home identifies Ethan's grave. Jennifer wants to get him a permanent marker. Right now they're getting by on support from their family and Brooklyn's SSI benefits.

After Ethan died, the family moved out of their mobile home on Route O. "I didn't want to live in that trailer anymore," Jennifer said. Now they're living in a mobile home next to Jennifer's grandfather on Route OO.

No presents are beneath the Christmas tree in their living room. "I haven't bought any. I really shouldn't take it out on them, but it really doesn't mean anything anymore," Jennifer said.

She hasn't asked for help from organizations that give aid during the holidays. "I don't know what they could do," she said.

A social service organization contacted by the Southeast Missourian has offered to pay for Ethan's grave marker. In addition, a university organization called SEMO Student Santas and the Southeast Missourian Toybox program are donating gifts to the Butler children. This year SEMO Student Santas donated 4,000 toys to children.

Last week, Jennifer hadn't seen Virgil for a day or so. He feels guilty about Ethan's death, she said. "We all do."

They went for counseling after Ethan died but quit. "All it does is keep opening up that door with the pictures in your head," Jennifer said. "It just makes it worse."

They were living in Illinois so Virgil could get certified to operate heavy equipment. He hasn't found a job here yet.

Jennifer and Virgil have talked about moving back to Illinois. Virgil wants to.

"I'm not sure I want to leave my boy here," Jennifer said. "I know he's dead and in a grave, but it would seem to me like I would be leaving him. I don't know what to do."

sblackwell@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 137

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