THE PARENTS: Shari Almeida, 34, and Kodi Almeida, 33, of Palmerton

THE CHILD: Dakota Ann, born October 11, 2018

AN EARLY SIGN OF STRENGTH: When hospital staff weighed Dakota just after birth, the baby leaned in. “She’s doing a push-up right now!” the nurse said.

Shari had been preparing for this moment. She kept running through the second trimester of her pregnancy. Her daily routine included 100 push-ups; on her lunch break, between seeing physical therapy patients, she would do 100 squats.

The baby’s room — an ocean theme, with turtles, dolphins and a motto that said, “Let your dreams sail,” a nod to Kodi’s Navy background — had been ready for months.

Even at St. Luke’s Hospital in Allentown, when a nurse said she was just 1.5 centimeters dilated and suggested she walk the hallways, Shari and Kodi did six brisk laps until, suddenly, she grabbed a railing and breathed hard while amniotic fluid splashed all over her husband’s prized military boots.

“It was the worst pain I’d ever felt in my life,” Shari says of her 12-hour labor. “But I don’t quit at anything. It was time, and I knew I was capable of doing it.”

It wasn’t until Dakota lay on her chest that Shari let go. “My mom looked at me and said, ‘It’s OK to cry.’ Dakota looked up at me with beautiful, big eyes, and I bawled like a baby.”

Kodi’s eyes stung, too. “I couldn’t believe she was a little person, this brand-new baby girl we’d get to raise, to see her go to school, go to dances, have these beautiful times together. …”

The couple had talked about children early on. They shared a fierce allegiance to family, along with clarity about their goals — both wanted to return to college for career-focused degrees — and a compulsion to organize and plan.

They met by happenstance — Kodi was fixing an air-conditioning unit at the physical therapy office where Shari was filling in for a co-worker. They exchanged glances, but not phone numbers; later, Shari took the leap of calling Kodi’s company (the name was on the side of the truck) and leaving a voicemail in which she described Kodi and said, “If you’re single, here’s my number.”

“I was pretty amused,” Kodi recalls. “My boss played the voicemail for me over the phone. I thought: I’ll wait a couple of days so I don’t seem too eager.” When he did call, they talked for 3½ hours.

“We were at the same place in our lives,” Kodi says. “We made a really good team.” They moved in together and took turns working so each could go back to school — Shari to become a physical therapy assistant, Kodi to study engineering.

One day, Shari left work to find roses scattered on the windshield of her car, with a note and a map to a nearby park. When she arrived, she found a table set under the trees with steak, potatoes and wine. After dinner, as they were walking — and stopping, and starting again each time Kodi was overcome with nervousness — he finally dropped to one knee and proposed.

They married in September 2017, a beach wedding in Cape Hatteras. As guests entered, children in the family gave each person a seashell. “The pastor said a prayer about giving back to the earth and the ocean in the way that the world gives to us,” Shari says. “Then we all walked down to the shoreline and tossed our seashells into the ocean.”

By December, she was pregnant, but miscarried on Christmas. Forty-two days later, she hadn’t gotten her period, and a pregnancy test came back positive: elation, twinned with fear. “The first time we were pregnant, I bought all these onesies and Kodi lifted me up and spun me around the kitchen. The second time, I was terrified.”

At her five-week ultrasound, the doctor couldn’t find a heartbeat; the couple left with a prescription to end the pregnancy. But Kodi kept counting the days, doing the math, checking his hunch. “It’s too early for a heartbeat,” he said. The following week, another ultrasound: silence, again.

“I was heartbroken,” Shari says. “They make you sign all these papers about what to do with the remains.” She wandered around a Barnes & Noble for hours, sobbing. But that afternoon, a nurse did one last ultrasound. Shari’s mother was with her. “Look!” she told her daughter. Something was pulsing on the screen. A heartbeat.

“We called Kodi and put him on speaker phone,” Shari recalls. “He said, ‘I knew it. I knew it.’ Everyone was crying and hugging us.”

They pegged their daughter as a fierce spirit, a fighter — a baby who rolled over at three weeks, who giggled when her father flipped her upside-down. On April 24, her pediatrician noted some purple bruise marks on her arms and legs, ordered blood work, and called with grim news: Go to an emergency room. Their daughter had leukemia.

A tranquil moment for Dakota and her parents, Kodi and Shari
Shari Almeida
A tranquil moment for Dakota and her parents, Kodi and Shari

“It was a perfectly normal day, until it wasn’t,” Shari says. Since then, the family has essentially lived at Lehigh Valley Hospital — Shari left her job to be her daughter’s full-time caregiver, and Kodi sleeps there each night before driving distractedly to work. Dakota receives a daily chemo regimen, along with steroids. There are blood transfusions, spinal taps, medications for pain and for nausea. After six to 10 months, the couple hopes she’ll be stable enough to go home and receive outpatient treatment.

“We were told very bluntly by our incredible physician that there’s a very good chance she could die. Leukemia likes to hide,” Shari says. She keeps a Facebook blog; friends, family and strangers check in with well-wishes, financial support, and prayers.

“We have to believe she’s here for a reason,” Shari says. “She fought like hell to get here, and she’s going to fight like hell to stay. I’m angry a lot. But at the same time, I see the amount of love that’s come from this. It’s made our family bigger.”