On Thanksgiving eve, Ellie Loschko stood before the congregation at Lakewood Evangelical Free Church in Baxter to share her story of how God had touched her life during the past year.
It was an emotional story of love and heartache, of a baby girl she and her husband Mark named Annabelle, who in her five short months of life captured the hearts of many people throughout the Brainerd lakes area and the world who followed her struggle for survival after undergoing a heart transplant.
But, above all, her story was filled with faith and hope, of the baby girl named Lilyanna nestled in Loschko's womb who, unbeknownst to church-goers that night, was to be born only hours later at St. Joseph's Medical Center.
It's been more than 11 months since Annabelle Louise Loschko ended her painful struggle to live, but Mark and Ellie Loschko continue to be stopped in public and told by strangers of how profoundly touched they were by Annabelle's life.
Mark and Ellie Loschko, Nisswa, are looking forward to spending Christmas with their newest addition, daughter Lilyanna Louise, who will be 4 weeks old on Christmas Day. The young couple spent last Christmas at a St. Louis hospital as doctors tried unsuccessfully to save their baby girl, Annabelle, who suffered from a rare heart condition. Annabelle Louise was 5 months old when she died Feb. 12, following a heart transplant. (Dispatch Photo by Steve Kohls)
The 5-month-old baby girl died Feb. 12 at St. Louis Children's Hospital where she had undergone a heart transplant two weeks earlier. She was born Sept. 9, 2001, the Loschko's firstborn daughter. She was a happy and healthy baby girl until at 3 months of age when it was discovered she had Respiratory Syncytial Virus, or RSV, a respiratory virus that can be dangerous for infants. Doctors found that the RSV triggered congestive heart failure in the infant as a result of her previously undiagnosed rare heart disease that caused the weakening of her heart muscle.
Countless Internet users kept updated on Annabelle's condition through Ellie Loschko's Web site, where the 26-year-old mother shared Annabelle's daily triumphs and struggles. People throughout the world left messages on the Web site for the Loschkos, telling them they were praying for their sick daughter. Several people said they became stronger in their Christian faith as a result of Annabelle's story and the Loschko's unwavering devotion to God during their daughter's illness.
Chris Close, Ellie Loschko's brother, went on a mission trip to Africa last summer as a way to honor his niece's life. Ellie Loschko had hoped that her firstborn daughter would become a missionary when she grew up.
"We knew it had nothing to do with us," said Ellie Loschko. "God was at work and using Annabelle's life. It didn't have anything to do with what we were saying or doing."
The Loschkos, who are both 1995 Brainerd High School graduates, spent 64 days at St. Louis Children's Hospital with their daughter. While they were away, Mark's employees at Rafferty's Pizza in Nisswa kept the restaurant up and running. Many families stopped in often to eat pizza there as a way to show their support for the Loschkos.
"The support was overwhelming," said Mark Loschko. "It was awesome. The whole time we were there (in St. Louis) we knew people were praying. We could feel it."
On Feb. 12, Annabelle's new heart went into cardiac arrest. Through his tears, Annabelle's surgeon frantically used his fingers to manually massage the tiny heart in one last attempt to save her life, Mark Loschko said. The Loschkos were touched by the compassion they felt from the nurses and doctors who worked hard to save their daughter.
"At the end, I almost felt selfish wanting her to fight," said Ellie Loschko. "To think of all she was going through. She was fighting so hard."
When the Loschkos returned home without their baby girl, they were amazed when they saw dozens of people throughout the community wearing the "Annabelle" pins that friends had created to help pay for the young family's medical bills.
They privately mourned for Annabelle, grieved that their Nisswa home suddenly felt so empty without their baby girl. Hundreds attended a memorial service for the baby few knew personally.
Just before Easter, the Loschkos learned that Ellie was pregnant. While they were excited about the prospect of the new baby, they were scared, too. They worried that the new baby would suffer from the same fatal heart condition as Annabelle. It is unclear whether Annabelle's heart disorder was genetic or spontaneous.
The Loschkos held onto their faith in God, as they had done through Annabelle's illness, praying that their new baby would be healthy.
On Nov. 27, Ellie gave birth to Lilyanna Louise -- or Lily for short -- just three hours after she spoke at her church. Her contractions had been three minutes apart during her speech. She and Mark drove straight to the hospital from the church.
Last Thursday, Lily was given a clean bill of health from Annabelle's heart specialists at Children's Heart Clinic of Minneapolis.
In photographs, Annabelle and Lily definitely look like sisters, said Ellie, but the two little girls are very different. Annabelle had chubbier cheeks than Lily and Lily has more hair than her older sister. Annabelle was a calm baby while Lily has exhibited a feisty side to her personality.
The Loschkos spent Annabelle's birthday watching the many hours of video they took of their daughter. They said that on Annabelle's birthday each year, they plan to give Lily one of Annabelle's special stuffed animals she received while in the hospital. They plan to share Annabelle's story with their newborn daughter. Annabelle would have been 14 months older than Lily, who will be 4 weeks old on Christmas.
The Loschkos continue to grieve for Annabelle, but feel blessed to be able to spend this Christmas with Lily.
"It just seems unreal when I think about all the things that have happened in one year. It's pretty amazing," said Ellie Loschko. "This Christmas will be so special, to look back at all the blessings we've been given."
The Loschkos are developing a foundation in Annabelle's memory that will sponsor programs for children with heart problems as a way to carry on their daughter's memory. They also plan to remain strong advocates of organ donation.
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