Deborah Dorbert's baby has a condition that is "not compatible with life." | Kimberly C. Moore, Jazbablog

Deborah Dorbert, 33, was luminescent as she gently placed her hands under the stomach bulge of the baby inside her — a child that she, her husband Lee and their 4-year-old son Kaiden love and want.

But it is a child the Lakeland resident and her husband know will die within minutes to hours after it is born because of an abnormality that a doctor told them is “not compatible with life.” It is a child she has been forced to continue carrying because of the Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center legal team's interpretation of a state law passed last year that banned abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy in Florida.

It's an interpretation that goes beyond the intent of the new law, according to the law's author, former Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland. While the law was written to ban abortions after the first trimester, it addresses situations specifically like the Dorberts' case, Stargel said.

Exceptions were written into the law for “fatal fetal abnormalities,” but Dorbert and her husband said they were told by a specialist that the hospital’s legal team “gathered … that the mother's life has to be affected. So just because the baby has a life-threatening condition, until it's a life-threatening condition to the mother, they can't pre-term induce,” Dorbert said quietly as she sat at the family’s dining table, the sing-song chatter of her son drifting in from another room.

The Dorberts' story has already received national attention via an article published on the front page of The Washington Post on Monday.

They are a typical young couple. They met nine years ago when they were both working for Publix Supermarkets Inc., and he held a second job as a vendor, unloading goods at various Publix stores. She was responsible for checking in the trucks and vendors at her store. They both smiled as they remembered their first meeting.

“Most of the time the receivers — the people that are checking in the product from other vendors — are usually these elderly women that have been in a position for a long time. And then I walk back there and I see her and I was like, well, this is gonna be fun to come to the store every week,” Lee Dorbert said. “So, from that day on, I remember slowly talking every chance that I got, you know, and slowly building that relationship with her and getting to know her a little bit better. Until I finally got her to go to the beach with me one day.”

Deborah and Lee Dorbert. | Kimberly C. Moore, Jazbablog

He thought she had stood him up that day because she was late, but she showed up and their day of sand and surf went off as planned.

They married five years ago, with Kaiden coming along a year later. They planned for and wanted a second child, finding out in August that they were expecting. She showed an ultrasound image of the baby that has refused to reveal its gender – either its legs have been crossed or the umbilical cord has blocked their view. One technician, though, said she thought it was a little girl. They have chosen the names Milo or Malia and call it Baby M.

Beginning of the nightmare

Tears rolled down her checks at her South Lakeland home this week as she talked about the nightmare that began the day before Thanksgiving, when she was 23 weeks pregnant and went to Dr. Jennifer Nixon at Women’s Care on Lakeland Hills Boulevard for what’s known as an anatomy ultrasound, during which the baby is checked for any abnormalities.

An ultrasound image of the Dorberts' baby

Dorbert had taken Kaiden with her to the appointment and the ultrasound technician was showing him his little sibling – one he hopes will be a girl. The technician was pointing out the baby’s features. But then she got a concerned look and began taking multiple pictures and asking Dorbert if she had been leaking amniotic fluid. The technician excused herself from the room and brought Dr. Nixon in to look at the images. Dr. Nixon then asked the technician to zero in on several areas and take more pictures.

“So she was looking at things and she looked at me and said, ‘I can't keep this from you over the holidays. I feel like as a doctor I need to tell you what we're looking at,’” Dorbert recalled. “She said that she could only see partial of the left kidney, from what she could see, but she could not see the right kidney. And that the amniotic fluid was extremely low. I remember asking her if my baby was going to live and she said, ‘Not without a kidney transplant.’”

But it would actually take more than a kidney transplant. The baby has what is known as Potter Syndrome, which Dr. Nixon wanted to confirm with a specialist and made an appointment for Dorbert for the Wednesday after Thanksgiving with Lakeland Regional Health’s maternal fetal medicine office, which is affiliated with Nemours Children's Specialty Care.

Dorbert left Dr. Nixon’s office and called her husband at his job at USAA Insurance, where he is a non-injury auto adjuster in their Brandon office. She explained what was happening, asked him to leave work and the couple met up at Lake Parker Park, watching Kaiden on the playground as they talked about what they were now facing.

According to Mount Sinai Hospital, a fetus with Potter Syndrome, also called oligohydramnios, has kidneys that “fail to develop properly as the baby is growing in the womb. The kidneys normally produce the amniotic fluid (as urine) … Without amniotic fluid, the infant is not cushioned from the walls of the uterus … Oligohydramnios also stops development of the lungs, so the lungs do not work properly at birth.”

Dorbert said the doctor explained that her baby would live anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours, but then die because it would not be able to breathe.

As she and her husband sat in the park the day before Thanksgiving, she noticed that she was leaking amniotic fluid and so the couple went to Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center’s Emergency Room and she was admitted to the hospital. Her parents drove over from Melbourne and picked up Kaiden while she remained in a labor and delivery room. The obstetrician on call did another detailed ultrasound and also confirmed that he wasn’t seeing the kidneys. He kept her in the hospital, hoping that a specialist would see her, but because of the holiday, none were available and so they sent her home on Saturday to rest.

At her scheduled appointment with maternal fetal medicine the following Wednesday, Dr. Thinh Nguyen confirmed that the baby had Potter’s syndrome, which is “not compatible with life.” He explained that they could perform a kidney transplant, but the other issue was the baby’s lack of lung development.

“When there's no fluid, the baby's lungs never develop and they don't breathe,” Dorbert said. “So we started going over our options there, whether I wanted to get pre-term induced or go to full term and he recommended getting pre-term induced because he said just the pregnancy itself is not easy.”

At that point, she was 24 weeks pregnant – six months – and Nguyen was the third doctor to tell Dorbert her baby was not going to live much past birth.

Nguyen stepped out of the room and allowed the couple some privacy to make their decision. He also wanted to call Lakeland Regional’s administration to get guidance on the law that was passed last year.

The Dorberts said Nguyen and Nixon have been kind and supportive throughout this ordeal, for which they are grateful. Neither responded to a request for comment.

The New Law

Former state Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland.

Florida Statute 390 defines abortion as “the termination of human pregnancy with an intention other than to produce a live birth or to remove a dead fetus.” It also defines a fatal fetal abnormality as “a terminal condition that, in reasonable medical judgment, regardless of the provision of life-saving medical treatment, is incompatible with life outside the womb and will result in death upon birth or imminently thereafter.”

The law states it is regarding “termination after gestational age of 15 weeks; when allowed — A physician may not perform a termination of pregnancy if the physician determines the gestational age of the fetus is more than 15 weeks unless one of the following conditions is met:

“(a) Two physicians certify in writing that, in reasonable medical judgment, the termination of the pregnancy is necessary to save the pregnant woman’s life or avert a serious risk of substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman other than a psychological condition.

“(b) The physician certifies in writing that, in reasonable medical judgment, there is a medical necessity for legitimate emergency medical procedures for termination of the pregnancy to save the pregnant woman’s life or avert a serious risk of imminent substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman other than a psychological condition, and another physician is not available for consultation.

“(c) The fetus has not achieved viability under s. 390.01112 and two physicians certify in writing that, in reasonable medical judgment, the fetus has a fatal fetal abnormality.”

Viable or viability is defined in the statute as “the stage of fetal development when the life of a fetus is sustainable outside the womb through standard medical measures.” It does not define at what week of pregnancy that is achieved.

Statute 390.01112 deals with termination of pregnancies during viability and states that a termination cannot be performed if a fetus has achieved viability unless two physicians certify in writing that the termination is necessary to save the pregnant woman’s life or avert serious risk of substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman “other than a psychological condition;” or one doctor certifies in writing that there is a medical necessity for legitimate emergency medical procedures to terminate the pregnancy to save the woman’s life or to avert serious risk of substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function “other than a psychological condition” and another doctor is not available.

It also requires a doctor to examine the pregnant woman and perform an ultrasound on the fetus. If the pregnancy is terminated during viability, the doctor “must exercise the same degree of professional skill, care, and diligence to preserve the life and health of the fetus that the physician would be required to exercise in order to preserve the life and health of a fetus intended to be born and not aborted. However, if preserving the life and health of the fetus conflicts with preserving the life and health of the woman, the physician must consider preserving the woman’s life and health the overriding and superior concern.”

The statute concludes that anyone who violates the law commits a third-degree felony and could be fined and/or go to prison.

The Dorberts struggled through December and Christmas, but were told by the maternal fetal medicine coordinator just before Christmas that they had to wait.

Former state Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, who sponsored the law and helped to write it, said it is very clear.

“The law is written that if a pregnancy is not viable and the baby has a fatal fetal abnormality, then you can terminate the pregnancy at any stage,” Stargel said this week, noting that it was written for cases just like the Dorberts’. However the words “at any stage” are not in the law. “I hate that these things have to go through a legal system in order to be clarified when the law is clear.”

When asked for a statement and told that Stargel felt the LRH legal team might be being overly cautious, Timothy Boynton, senior vice president of development and chief public relations and communications officer at Lakeland Regional Health, sent an emailed statement to Jazbablog.

“Lakeland Regional Health and its physicians honor the privacy and health of each patient,” Boynton wrote. “As an organization, Lakeland Regional Health upholds the responsibility to care for each individual patient while abiding with all local, state, and federal laws.”

The maternal fetal medicine coordinator contacted the Dorberts in late December and told them that while they won’t have to go a full 40 weeks, they were probably looking at around 37 weeks – which is next week. And now they're making arrangements for that.

“The outcome is either stillborn or, if it is born, it's a short while before it suffers,” Dorbert said.

Waiting

Dorbert grew up in Melbourne as a Catholic, graduating from Satellite High School. She said she always felt like ending a pregnancy was a personal decision.

“Everyone's health is different, so I always felt like it should be the choice of the mother and what's best for her and her family,” Dorbert said. “I don't know everyone's health situations. I just felt like it should be left up to the mother and her doctors and what's best for her. Because I know that's kind of how, you know, we felt. We were planning for a second (child) and I never imagined we’d be put in this situation.”

Lee Dorbert said it is painful to watch the woman he loves go through this, knowing that if it is hard for him, it is 10 times worse for her.

“As a father and a husband, that’s the most helpless feeling, it is the worst feeling,” Lee Dorbert said. “I think one of the biggest difficulties is knowing that we didn't have a choice in the matter, that that decision was made for us before we could even really decide what was best for our family, for her health for our family’s health … It’s difficult even to think that the current laws that are in place were not something that was passed by a majority vote of the people, you know. It was something that was signed and put into place.”

Both of the Dorberts said Kaiden is drawing pictures of the little sister he wants. They haven’t been able to tell him what is happening.

“There’s one time particularly sitting here doing crafts with him and he cut out a little kid out of a piece of paper and (said) that he wanted a little sister. And that's something that you know, it was hard for me to take,” Lee Dorbert said. “I didn't know what to do. I just froze.”

Deborah Dorbert said she is in constant discomfort and pain because the baby isn’t floating in amniotic fluid but is, instead, pushed against her uterine wall. The baby pushes against her ribs and her cervix, causing pelvic, back and sciatic pain, along with round ligament pain, she said.

“It’s not like my first pregnancy. The pain is horrible,” Dorbert said. “Just mentally, I've been struggling with anxiety, depression and I’m just not the same woman I was before I got pregnant. I’m just tired all the time. I just struggle every day getting out of bed. I mean I have a four-year-old that I have to take care of that I don’t have a lot of patience (with) because I’m just struggling physically and mentally. So he definitely does not see the same Mom anymore.”

She said she suspects Kaiden knows something is wrong.

“We haven't physically told him yet because, as parents we’re still trying to figure out how you tell a 4-year-old that has seen my belly grow, that has felt the baby move, that was there the day I had an ultrasound and saw the baby’s face and hands, and knew what it was and called it out,” Deborah Dorbert said. “We're still trying to find words to tell him his sibling’s not coming home.”

Stargel said she wanted to talk with the Dorberts and the Dorberts also said they wanted to speak with her. All said they want to ensure that this never happens again, although Stargel’s hands might be tied in terms of adding to the legislation –- she term-limited out of office last year. However, she still knows other lawmakers and aides who could help.

“We're just we're just trying to share our story if it's gonna help one other person,” Lee Dorbert said. “If it helps one other mother that's going through the same things to know that they're going to be strong enough to go through this, they're not alone and that they have the support to make a decision for what's best for them.”

On Thursday, the Dorberts will see Dr. Nguyen again to make an appointment for next week to end her pregnancy. On Friday, they have an appointment at Lakeland Funeral Home, Memorial Gardens & Crematory to make funeral arrangements for the child they know is going to die. They plan to have Baby M cremated.

Deborah Dorbert said waiting these three months has been one of the hardest things she has ever done.

“I haven't been able to grieve because I haven't been able to deliver the baby and be able to grieve and heal and move on,” she said.

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to Jazbablog in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at [email protected] or 863-272-9250.

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