After tragedy, couple’s ‘guardian angel’ offers strength

Benjamin and Jessica Houk gaze at their daughter Hannah Faith, stillborn July 2.

By Kathy Weiss

A pink, hand-stamped card became both a birth announcement and funeral memento with this poignant inscription: “Benjamin and Jessica Houk are proud to announce the birth of their first child, born into eternal life July 2, 2009.”

Bearing smudged images of tiny hand and footprints and a hospital bed photo of two somber young parents swaddling a baby, the card was distributed during a visitation at Runge Mortuary in Davenport for Hannah Faith Houk, the day before her July 7 funeral at St. Peter Catholic Church in Buffalo. The funeral culminated an emotional ordeal that broke Ben and Jessica’s hearts yet fortified their faith.

Interviewed recently at home in Davenport, Jessica recounted how their joy turned tragic March 17 during a routine ultrasound test. “I got excited that maybe they were going to tell us if it was a girl or a boy.”

Instead, the doctor said that their unborn daughter would not survive.  The diagnosis: ectopia cordis, a rare congenital defect.  “He said her heart was growing outside of her chest.”


The couple struggled to grasp what it meant.

“I felt like I had the breath knocked out of me,” Jessica recalled upon hearing the news.  “The doctor said that we needed to go to Iowa City. I was freaking out like we needed to go right away. But then they said there’s nothing that can be done. We can’t help you.”

While appointments were made for them at University Hospitals, Jessica went online to learn about the fatal defect that affects about seven in one million births. She started a blog on the Internet to keep family and friends updated, which in turn produced countless posts and prayers from well-wishers. 

The visit to Iowa City confirmed what they already knew.  “No surgery could ever be done.”

Angered by what they perceived as pressure on the part of hospital staff to terminate the pregnancy, the couple returned home, determined to let their baby live as long as possible. 

“I couldn’t live with myself if we had killed her,” says Jessica.

They made the most of the weeks that followed, exploring resources, celebrating Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and planning their baby’s funeral. 

“We were so happy,” she recounts of their bittersweet period as expectant parents.  “We knew she was sick for a long time, but we were still really happy.” At her July 1 doctor’s appointment during her 28th week of pregnancy, the couple learned their baby had died. Labor was induced and Jessica gave birth July 2 to Hannah Faith.

“Even though the doctor couldn’t help us, he treated her with respect, like she was a person — not a fetus,” Jessica said of Bettendorf obstetrics physician Leroy Yates. 

After Hannah’s stillbirth, a photographer from the charity organization “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” captured images of the couple with their baby. 

Father Michael Spieker-meier, pastor at St. Paul the Apostle parish, baptized Hannah.  Following her funeral, celebrated by retired Father William Wiegand at St. Peter’s, she was buried at Rose Hill Cemetery in Buffalo in a dress made from Jessica’s wedding gown.

“I wanted her to be a person,” shared the young mom, who intends to honor Hannah’s memory by helping others.

At the visitation, several strangers confided they had suffered a similar loss. “People told us they lost a baby at 20 weeks and never even got to see them,” relates Jessica. “There are so many people hurting out there.  They call it a ‘secret society.’”  

For Ben, the ordeal has been life-changing. 

“I think that Hannah has blessed us and I thank God for sharing an angel with us,” he commented. “The very first softball game I returned to after Hannah’s passing, I told myself that I could do it because Hannah was watching me on the field. And I played a really good game that day! Not everyone has a guardian angel who they can call their daughter,” he said.

“She has given me the desire and strength to be the person who I need to be to get to heaven. All in all, the experience has made me a better person, although everyone tells me I would have made a great daddy…and that I already am.”

“It’s debatable that this is the worst thing that has happened in our lives,” Jessica said, smiling through tears. “It’s the best thing too. 

“Whenever I feel upset, I remember what my daily pregnancy calendar said. I flipped it over the morning I woke up before my appointment where we found out she had passed away.  It said ‘Don’t lose faith.’”

To view more photos, visit

Support The Catholic Messenger’s mission to inform, educate and inspire the faithful of the Diocese of Davenport – and beyond! Subscribe to the print and/or e-edition, or make a one-time donation, today!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Posted on