Death of infant leaves family torn between tears, memories

NEW FAIRFIELD - Inside the small, clapboard house, the images of an infant boy's tragically short life are cherished in pictures everywhere.

Some are set in frames. Others have been lovingly pressed in the pages of a family album. Still more, but less tangible, portraits rest deep within the hearts of the boy's grieving parents.
Gavin Ryan O'Dwyer , who was born a seemingly healthy, normal baby, died on Aug. 17 this year, only 19 days after doctors discovered he had a brain tumor. Gavin was just 17 months old. "We felt numb," said Gavin's mother, Janis. "We never expected anything like this to happen." Even when Gavin's illness was first diagnosed, Janis O'Dwyer
, 25, and her husband, Brooke, 29, said they always hoped for the best. "We didn't realize just how quick this would be," Janis said. "He was so young." The pain of Gavin's death is still deeply etched on Janis O'Dwyer's face. She says her husband is having an especially hard time dealing with their loss. Between occasional tears and sporadic smiles of fond remembrances, Janis spoke last week of the tragedy that re-drew their lives. With a small fire crackling in the wood stove and their 3-year-old daughter, Devon, sitting on her lap, Janis traced the short, sad journey of Gavin's life. Gavin O'Dwyer was born at Danbury Hospital on March 6 last year and weighed 6 pounds, 8 ounces. "He was fine," said Janis. "It was a normal, healthy birth. Soon he was walking and talking and hitting every milestone he was supposed to. There were no signs of what was going to happen." It was only when Gavin reached his first birthday that his parents noticed a change in his behavior. "He started to cry a lot for no particular reason," Janis said. "He cried especially on the holidays and at times like Mother's Day and Father's Day. He was inconsolable." Then, in May this year, Gavin began displaying symptoms of feeling physically unwell. "He started being sick in the morning, even though he was fine in the afternoon," Janis said. "When he started throwing up curdled milk we thought he was allergic to milk so we took him off it." The O'Dwyer's family physician, Dr. Oscar Lascano , of New Fairfield Family Practice, who examined Gavin, noted that the boy was not gaining enough weight and thought he might have an intestinal problem. "He never showed any symptoms of having anything like a brain tumor," Lascano said last week. Still, although the sickness stopped in June, Lascano later referred the family to a children's gastrointestinal specialist at Danbury Hospital and Gavin was admitted for tests. It was there on July 29 that a CT scan of Gavin's head showed he had a malignant brain tumor known as an ependymoma. "It's a type of tumor that is less common in small children like him," Lascano said. "It's more common in older children." Within three hours of the CT scan, Janis O'Dwyer said Gavin was taken to the pediatric intensive care unit at Yale- New Haven Hospital where he underwent brain surgery. "They got a good portion of the tumor but couldn't remove it all," Janis said. "The next day other tests showed there were tumor cells growing down his spine." There was a moment when Gavin seemed to respond well to chemotherapy. His mother remembers the time when he even got out of his crib and began walking again. But Gavin never recovered. "The chemotherapy brought his defenses down and he developed an infection that didn't respond to medication," Lascano said. "From the knowledge I have, his heartbeat dropped and he just crashed," Janis said. Still, even when the future looked bleak, the O'Dwyers never lost hope their son might pull through. While Gavin was at Yale-New Haven Hospital, they had him baptized by a minister from St. Andrews Lutheran Church in Ridgefield where they are members. Back at the O'Dwyers' home in New Fairfield, family members worked on creating a germ-free environment in the event the boy might return. "We cleaned everything," said Erin O'Dwyer , Gavin's aunt, who lives in Danbury. "We ripped up carpets, cleaned toys and even bleached his crib, but he never had a chance to come home." Getting on with their lives without Gavin has presented the O'Dwyers with new challenges in their four-year marriage. Brooke O'Dwyer , who grew up in Bethel, is back at work as a self-employed carpenter. Janis O'Dwyer, who was raised in New Fairfield, has returned to Western Connecticut State University to resume her studies for a bachelor's degree in justice and law administration. She was allowed to take a sabbatical before Gavin was born. "I go there three nights a week," she said. "It gets me out of the house and helps me socialize. One day I'd like to be a lawyer." For the O'Dwyers, the memories of their son's brief life are still fresh. They used to call him Bambam, after the muscular baby cartoon character, "because he was a strong little boy and used to throw things about," Janis said. "Then he'd laugh. He thought it was the greatest thing in the world." Janis said Gavin's best friend was Buddy, the family's 3-year-old boxer. "I remember how he'd play with the dog and snuggle up to him," Janis said. "He loved playing with Buddy's ears." Gavin's death has also produced emotional and tangible support from outside the family. Last week, one of Janis' longtime friends, Meghan Leigh Henriques , organized a benefit in Danbury to raise funds for both the family and for the Danbury and Yale-New Haven Hospitals where Gavin was treated. Officials at the Catholic War Veterans Hall where the benefit was held waived the normal rental fee and local restaurants donated food and other items. "We called the benefit 'A Little Bit of Heaven,'Ÿ" Henriques said. "It wasn't supposed to be a day of mourning but rather a chance to try to make a difference and help find a cure for others." Since Gavin's death, Janis O'Dwyer says their belief in family unity has become even more important. "We try to do everything together and appreciate what we have," Janis said. "I quit my own job to make more time to stay at home. We try to make sure we're all at home together for dinner and we go to the grocery store together. We take everything day by day." The O'Dwyers have told their daughter, Devon, about Gavin's death. "She knows Gavin is in heaven but she asks a million questions every day," Janis said. "Sometimes she wants to know whether he plays with toys there or whether he has a car seat."

Further donations in memory of Gavin O'Dwyer can be made by calling Meghan Leigh Henriques at (203) 830-9433

Contact Brian Saxton


or at (203) 731-3332.