When Erick and Kristyn Nieves of Reformation OPC in Queens, New York, learned they were expecting a baby in 2013, the couple was happily surprised. The Nieveses already had two daughters, ages 4 and 1, and hadn’t anticipated an addition to their family so soon.
They quickly learned the addition would be bigger than they expected.
When Kristyn visited the doctor for her first sonogram in May 2013, she watched the physician study the screen for a long time. She asked if everything was okay, and the doctor replied, “Well, yes. If you look here, you’ll see one … two … and three.”
The Nieveses were expecting triplets.
It was an overwhelming discovery for a family living in a three-bedroom house on expensive Long Island. How would they afford it? What kind of car would they need? Would Kristyn be able to continue her job as an elementary school teacher while Erick worked as a bridge and tunnel officer?
Despite the pressing questions, the couple thanked the Lord for his blessings, and asked the members of Reformation OPC to begin praying for their new adventure as parents of five children under five years of age.
Reformation OPC had already embarked on an adventure of its own. The OPC’s first church plant in New York City was still young, and had faced the possibility of expulsion from their meeting place after city officials threatened to prohibit churches from renting public schools for Sunday worship services.
The church members—and others around the country—prayed about the dilemma facing dozens of congregations around the city, and a court decision allowed churches to continue to meet in schools for now. The young OP mission work and its newly ordained pastor, Jonathan Shishko, were learning to rely on the Lord’s provision week by week, even when the future wasn’t clear.
It was a lesson that members of the church family—especially the Nieveses—would soon learn to apply in far more profound ways.
When Kristyn visited the doctor for another sonogram in July 2013, the doctors discovered a problem. One of the triplets had a severe heart defect that would require a series of major surgeries after she was born. Since the triplets would be born early, surgeons wouldn’t be able to operate right away.
Erick and Kristyn absorbed the sorrowful news: the high-risk pregnancy could end with death for one of their tiny, unborn daughters.
The doctors suggested an unwelcome option: “selective reduction.” Physicians presented the possibility of aborting their vulnerable daughter as the most rational way to protect the two other babies and their mother. Kristyn and Erick gave a firm response: they would keep all of the children the Lord had fearfully and wonderfully made.
The family began preparing to enlarge their tent, and the members of their local church began preparing to help them. Church members held a banquet and raised thousands of dollars. Another church member set up a website for donations. Others began planning to arrange meals and organize volunteers to sit with the children and help with other tasks.
Most of all, the church joined the Nieves family in praying for the Lord’s grace in whatever his providence might bring. Jonathan Shishko, pastor at Reformation OPC, visited the family, offering prayer and encouragement from the Scriptures.
For Shishko, it was the most complex case of pastoral care he had faced in his young ministry. Shishko says he had encountered families facing financial stress, the challenges of parenting, health crises, and other problems, “but to have all of those things together in one family is pretty amazing.”
Shishko says that the Nieveses learned to rely on the Lord’s daily care and trust his provisions for the future. “I told them, ‘Jesus is the Lord of your life, and he loves you,’ ” Shishko remembers. “And I said, ‘There are a whole lot of people who want to help you.’ ”
Meanwhile, Kristyn and Erick prayed for the Lord’s help as a family. During one time of prayer, Erick called their fragile daughter by a name he and Kristyn had discussed as a possibility for the child: Christiana. The couple agreed: “That’s her name.”
The parents began referring to their daughter by name during visits with their physicians leading up to the birth. “I think that really struck them,” says Kristyn of the world-renowned doctors they met. The family prayed Kristyn would be able to carry the triplets as long as possible, especially since Christiana was half the size of her sisters.
In October 2013, the three girls were born at 31 weeks into the pregnancy. (The average for triplets’ birth is around 33 or 34 weeks.) Arielle Joy arrived first, weighing three pounds and two ounces. Hannah Grace came next at three pounds and ten ounces. And last came Christiana Faith, weighing one pound and eleven ounces.
All the preemies remained in the neonatal intensive care unit for extended stays: Arielle stayed for 51 days. Hannah stayed for 83 days. Both babies eventually returned home, and are now healthy and happy.
As expected, Christiana’s journey was more difficult. Her first surgery was in February 2014. The surgeons warned they would likely need to operate again soon because of the baby’s complex anatomy, but a few weeks later they delivered worse news: pulmonary hypertension made additional surgeries impossible. The prognosis was grim. They urged Kristyn and Erick to take their daughter home and make her comfortable.
The family was heartbroken. They mourned the possible loss of Christiana, and they grieved over the ordeal that her loss at home would be for their other children and Erick’s mother, who lives with the family.
Erick remembers a particularly sorrowful moment during the Lord’s Supper, as he contemplated the reality that his daughter might never enjoy the means of grace: “There are just so many things we want her to experience.” Shishko wondered if his first baptism as a pastor would also bring his first funeral for a baby. The Nieveses and their church family committed Christiana’s days to the Lord, who gives and takes away.
Then, unexpected hope arrived. The doctors devised an ambitious surgery, reconstructing Christiana’s pulmonary artery and bringing down her hypertension. So far the surgery has worked, though the following months brought several trips back to the hospital. Christiana has been home consistently since July, and her parents are hopeful she’ll remain well until another surgery, possibly next spring.
Even with this hope, Christiana’s condition remains serious, and the Nieveses realize they don’t know what the future will bring. Erick says the uncertainty has deepened their dependence on the Lord. “Whatever may come, God is with us, and this is not an accident,” he says. “I’ve definitely seen the Lord working even more so in our lives than I probably would have if we weren’t so needy. It’s given me more confidence in God.”
For now, the Nieveses remain thankful for a church family that prays and helps them manage a complex web of overwhelming financial and logistical challenges. (Kristyn has returned to her job as a schoolteacher, and a website for donations for their many financial needs remains active: www.gofundme.com/5huhp4.)
The couple is thankful for opportunities to testify to God’s grace to both believers and unbelievers. Kristyn particularly thinks of those who have told her God doesn’t give us more than we can handle: “I tell them, ‘You know, sometimes I think he does give us more than we can handle, so we can learn to rely on him more.’ ”
It’s a lesson for the whole church, says Shishko, who baptized all three babies during a joyful service at Reformation OPC last June. He says the Nieveses’ joy and trust in the Lord have been an encouragement and an example to the congregation and to a watching community.
“It’s a call to a life of radical faith,” he says of the Nieveses. “And that’s what they’re doing.”
The author is a member of Matthews OPC in Matthews, N.C. New Horizons, February 2015.