Sarah Rodriguez, 33, lost her husband to cancer and almost lost her second child to meningitis

By Cathy Free
July 20, 2015 11:40 AM
Courtesy Sarah Rodriguez

A few months before he died of kidney cancer in 2013, Sarah Rodriguez’s husband, Joel, told her he felt strongly that she would have a daughter someday to grow up with the son they’d recently had after five years of struggling with infertility.

Today, when Sarah, 33, bounces daughter Ellis, eight months, on her lap at her home in Norman, Oklahoma, she lets happy tears flow, savoring the moments that were not supposed to happen.

Ellis, who was conceived via in vitro fertilization and diagnosed with bacterial meningitis two weeks after her birth last November, was not expected to live.

In fact, Sarah had taken the infant off her ventilator at the hospital to hold her and tell her goodbye when it was obvious that nothing more could be done to save her.

But something unexpected – and unexplainable – happened seconds later. As Sarah held Ellis to her chest, she began to breathe on her own. Her seizures stopped and tests a few hours afterwards showed no signs of meningitis or brain damage.

“A miracle happened that day – I can’t explain it any other way,” Sarah tells PEOPLE. “I don’t understand why it happened, but it did. And it has restored my hope at a time when I most need it.”

Ellis in the hospital two weeks after her birth
Courtesy Sarah Rodriguez

This Thursday – on the third anniversary of his death – Sarah, a former oil company office worker who now writes a popular blog called Journey of Sarah and is a stay-at-home mom, plans to hold a “random acts of kindness” day in her hometown to honor her husband.

“He was such a giving person, and this is a way for me honor his life,” she says. “And it is also very healing. I am raising our children without him, but Joel’s memory brings me such joy. I know he wouldn’t want me to spend the day any other way.”

It was 2005 when Sarah met Joel through a friend in New York City, where she had moved to take a job as a receptionist and fulfill a childhood dream of living in the Big Apple.

She and Joel, who worked as an assistant for the Pontifical Mission Societies, were smitten with each other after only one date and were married six months later.

One year later, when they decided to start a family, the Rodriguezes moved to Norman to be near Sarah’s parents and buy their first home together.

“We thought we would get pregnant right away, but 3½ years later, we were still trying,” Sarah tells PEOPLE. “We were told that in vitro was our best bet, so we eventually decided to freeze some sperm.”

Near that same time, Joel passed a blood clot in his urine and was sent to the hospital for tests.

“We found out in 2010 that he had Stage 3 kidney cancer that had eaten away his entire kidney,” Sarah recalls.

The decision she and Joel had made to freeze some sperm, she says, would change their lives.

Chemotherapy sent Joel’s cancer into remission, but then two years later, it returned, three days after the birth of Milo, conceived through IVF.

Shortly before his death on July 23, 2013, Joel told Sarah: “You are going to have another child, this time a little girl.”

“Within days of his death, I thought about that conversation and knew there was this piece of him – two more embryos – just down the street at the infertility clinic,” says Sarah. “I had this feeling in my heart that I should have another child and that there would be purpose to her life.”

On Nov. 6, 2014, within seconds of Ellis’ birth, the newborn reached up with her tiny hand and grasped Sarah’s necklace, embossed with Joel’s thumbprint.

“She was the beauty that came from the ashes of our story,” says Sarah. “It felt like a part of Joel had returned to me with her birth.”

Although her daughter seemed healthy when she took her home, Sarah noticed two weeks later that she had a high temperature.

Alarmed, she rushed Ellis to the doctor, and was told to take her immediately to the hospital. Her daughter would be in critical condition for almost three weeks.

“I remember seeing her scans one day and my heart filling with sadness, because Ellis’ brain function was incompatible with life,” Katie Tyler, a pediatric intensive care nurse at the Children’s Hospital at Oklahoma University Medical Center, tells PEOPLE.

“There was no question that baby Ellis would not even breathe, let alone eat and interact, with the extent of injury she had to her brain,” Tyler says. “We knew it would be a very short time before she passed away in Sarah’s arms.”

Determined that her daughter would leave the world knowing she was loved, Sarah held Ellis close to her chest in the same way she’d held her after she was born.

“I wanted her to hear my heartbeat,” she says, “and I wanted to read her her first storybook. I read her On the Night You Were Born, then I told her, ‘You are so brave. It’s OK to go now. You will get to be with your daddy today.’ ”

Gently rocking her daughter after nurses took her off her ventilator, Sarah expected the life to leave her daughter’s eyes at any moment. But that didn’t happen.

Inexplicably, Ellis began to breathe normally on her own.

“She curled into this tiny ball and stopped having seizures,” says Sarah, “and when they checked her vitals, everything was normal. It was as if the meningitis had never happened.”

Her survival stunned her doctors.

“What happened to Ellis is a complete miracle – every minute detail of it,” adds Tyler, 22, who has since had dinner with Sarah and held Ellis in her arms. “She is thriving and showing the world that faith and miracles are real.”

To help pay medical costs and ensure that Sarah can take a year off to stay home with her children, close friend Liz Davidson, 25, who also lives in Norman, Oklahoma, helped start a fundraiser, which has thus far brought in almost $35,000.

“It never crossed my mind not to walk into the fire with her,” Davidson tells PEOPLE, “because I know she would do the same for me. What a miracle both of her children are, especially Ellis. I will be forever changed by my time in the hospital with Sarah and her.”

As she holds her children close, remembering her husband, Sarah knows in her heart that Joel would have been a loving and giving father.

“I miss him terribly – his smile, his jokes, his kindness,” she says, “but there are days when I can feel his presence. After he died, I didn’t know where I stood with miracles. But now I know, wholeheartedly, that they exist.”

Sarah with Ellis (left) and Milo at the Grand Canyon
Courtesy Sarah Rodriguez