Rachel Olson holds a photograph of infant daughter Finley, who authorities say was killed by a caregiver in January. To honor her daughter and to try and do something positive to help others, Rachel continues to pump her breast milk and donates it to a milk bank. Credit: Gary Porter for the Journal Sentinel
On Jan. 13, around 5 p.m., Finley Rae Olson arrived at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin with a fractured skull.
She was 6 months old. Twenty-eight inches tall. Seventeen pounds. Blood pooled in her brain.
Finley had blue eyes. Like those of her mother, Rachel. Like those of her father, Will. Like those of her 3-year-old brother, Ryder. Rachel says people used to stop her all the time to comment on Finley’s eyes. On her eyes, and also on her smile.
“Happy baby,” they said.
At the hospital, Finley was placed on a bed that, to Rachel, seemed much too big for a baby, for anyone’s baby. How could this be? Finley’s body was a little clearing in a forest of tubes and wires and machines. Rachel wondered: How could this be?
And then, two days later, the tubes and wires were removed, the machines were taken from the room, and Rachel and Will spent a few quiet hours with their daughter as she died. Her heart was beating, Rachel says. Then it stopped.
Rachel and Will drove their empty car home.
“It was hard to drive away from the hospital,” she says. “To leave her on that bed. I thought about the hospital staff moving her to some room. And then to the morgue.
“I had no idea what we would do when we got home. How do we go home and do normal things? We don’t know how to do this.”
A 30-year-old woman from Cudahy — Carrie A. Heller — is charged with killing Finley.
Heller had been Finley’s caregiver for all of 11 days. According to court records, she’s given police several different stories of what happened. She said she was changing Finley’s diaper and the baby appeared to have had a seizure. Then she said she shook the baby a little. Then she said the baby fell off a couch. Then she said she dropped Finley. Then she said she accidentally hit Finley in the head with a highchair tray.
Heller has pleaded not guilty to first-degree reckless homicide charges. Rachel and Will attend all the hearings.
There was one on Thursday. Rachel watched Heller come into the courtroom, dressed in blue garb, handcuffed between two deputies, eyes to the floor.
Rachel says their eyes never meet.
She tries to imagine why this woman would do such a thing. Why?
“Why Finley,” Rachel says. “Why any baby?”
There is no “why,” she’s decided.
Nothing explains it.
When Rachel and Will got home from the hospital that day, she pumped her breast milk. Actually, she doesn’t think of it as her breast milk. It’s Finley’s milk, she says.
She couldn’t bring herself to throw it away. She poured it into packets for storing breast milk — each packet holds 5 ounces — and put them in a freezer.
She already had a two-week supply. And so she began to add to it. Packet by packet.
Pumping breast milk is not exactly a treat. Even less so when the milk only accumulates. No baby to watch grow. Only a growing supply of frozen packets.
Then she heard about Mothers’ Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes, which provides pasteurized human milk to hospitals for premature and critically ill babies and provides support to mothers who are able to donate their milk because their babies have died.
The milk is an elixir, says Cindy Ruz and nurse and lactation specialist at the Women’s Pavilion at the Aurora West Allis Medical Center, where Finley was born.
And there is never enough.
Rachel went through the milk bank’s extensive screening process and continued to save her milk, one 5-ounce packet at a time.
On Thursday, after Heller’s hearing, Rachel loaded her packets of milk into a blue cooler and met Ruz at the hospital.
The hospital is a depot for the milk bank. Ruz took possession of 83 packets.
“Such a wonderful gift,” Ruz said. “Such a loving act.”
As she drove to the hospital, Rachel says, she didn’t really think of Heller. Finley would have turned 9 months old that day. Instead, she thought about that.
“I know she would have been crawling,” Rachel says. “I imagined her crawling, with Ryder leading the way, laughing.”
Rachel dropped off the milk, then drove home.
She thought of the milk as a gift, one that came from Finley. It honored her daughter. It honored them both.