THE PARENT: Ariella Benson, 39, of West Philadelphia
THE CHILD: Turiyam Emet, born Aug. 6, 2019
AN ANSWERED PRAYER: Last Nov. 20, during her morning meditation and prayer, Ariella decided not to ask for something specific. “I prayed for unconditional love,” she says. “And that night, I got pregnant.”
Ariella was 15 when she jokingly told an aunt that she “wasn’t born to breed” — but that if she ever had a baby, it would be just one, and she would raise the child as a single parent.
By that time, she was already conversant with loss, having absorbed the grief of parents whose first child, a son, was stillborn and whose third baby, Ariella’s younger sister, died of heart failure at three months. “By the time my mother was 22, she had buried two kids and was working on a divorce.”
Ariella and her mother lived in Israel for nearly nine years; later, with Ariella’s stepfather, the family moved from Queens to Connecticut to Long Island to Albany. Ariella found her way to a psychology degree and work she loved, in psychiatric hospitals. She studied yoga therapy and dreamed of opening wellness centers for underserved populations.
She was alone, but content in her solitude. “I have low tolerance for immaturity and small talk,” she says. “I have a very strange sense of humor. I’ve never found anyone I really thought would complement me, where we could grow and learn and move through life together. I have a great time by myself.”
And then she met him: a family nurse-practitioner who studied yoga and loved to discuss philosophy. “He was intellectually so stimulating, really fantastic to talk to.
And when she texted to let him know the results of four drugstore pregnancy tests — all unequivocal — he responded with recrimination. “He told me that I was trying to ruin his life,” she says. Then he blocked her number.
“My lease was about to run out. I was unemployed, a full-time student. I had no idea how I was going to pull this off, but I knew I was going to, somehow. I thought: Women all over the world have babies and go back to work. Why can’t I?”
Then, two ultrasounds revealed devastating news: The baby had a congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH) — a condition in which the diaphragm doesn’t fully develop, allowing abdominal organs to migrate into the chest and crowd the lungs. It was the same problem that had caused Ariella’s sister’s death 37 years earlier.
“[At first], they told me there was an 85% chance he would die very soon. I said, ‘Well, then there’s a 15% chance he’s going to live.’ ”
Ariella drew on her profound sense of faith, on the perspective she shared when she taught yoga classes, on the ways loss had marked her. “My yoga classes were always about how to suffer less, how to navigate through difficult times. I thought: If God is giving me a sick baby, it’s to help me learn how to help others better. I thought: If God takes this child away from me, there’s a reason for that, too.”
Ariella learned that Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) treats 50 babies a year with CDH — more than anywhere else in the United States. So, six months into her pregnancy, she left Queens to complete her master’s degree in yoga therapy at the Maryland University of Integrative Health. She found homes for her pit bull and trio of kittens. Two weeks before delivery, she received her degree. A week later, she moved to Philadelphia.
Throughout the pregnancy, she had stayed active — swimming, stretching, walking, a prenatal yoga teacher training in her third trimester — and tailored her vegan diet to support the development of particular organs: avocados and tomatoes for the baby’s heart; vegetables rich in vitamin A for his lungs.
“Every ultrasound, doctors said he would be a third-trimester demise, or stillborn.” She decided on a cesarean to avoid the possibility of head trauma to the baby through a vaginal birth. And she had long since decided on his name: Turiyam Emet, names drawn from Sanskrit and Hebrew, meaning “absolute truth, consciousness, and bliss.”
Her son was born nearly full-term — 38 weeks and six days — at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, then whisked to CHOP. When Ariella saw him, he was on a heart-lung bypass machine called an ECMO, in a little bed with a warmer above it. “He was not aware of anything. He had a ventilator breathing for him. He had IVs, a PICC line, something in every leg and hand, things beeping.”
For days, they communicated through one light touch; Ariella would place a hand under the baby’s foot, and if he was awake, he’d scrunch his toes around her finger. She read to him: The Little Prince and Oh, the Places You’ll Go and Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are.
She chants mantras and speaks to Turiyam in Hebrew as well as English.
Since Aug. 12, Ariella has lived at the Ronald McDonald House in West Philadelphia. She spends every day in the NICU — arriving in the afternoon and staying through the night, when Turiyam tends to become agitated. She buys fresh produce to make herself salads, or she’ll cook an eggplant stew and heat up portions in a Crock-Pot.
Toward the end of October, Turiyam was taken off the ventilator; he still has a BiPap machine that assists his breathing. He was treated for pulmonary hypertension, a common complication of CDH, and has two holes in his heart, one of which may require surgical repair. There is swelling in his brain.
No one can tell Ariella if Turiyam will survive, or what his future holds. All she knows is that she will remain by his side. “Holding him is my mindful meditation,” she says. “Changing his diaper. I have no idea what’s coming next. When that bridge comes, I’ll cross it. I say, ‘God, please guide me. Show me what you want me to do, and keep me strong enough to do it.’ I’m just grateful he’s alive.”