In Taylor McKeen Shelton’s brief life, he found joy in everything around him — rocking his fedora, going to the park and being with his family and friends.
But his future that once held such potential came to an abrupt — and still unexplained — halt a year ago, when the 14-month-old son of Dr. Wes and Ella Shelton died of Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood.
From the moment they found out they were pregnant, they already had chosen a name, whether the baby was a boy or a girl: Taylor McKeen, which is both of their mothers’ maiden names.
Ella and Wes grew up together in Batesville and began dating during their junior year at the University of Arkansas.
“Wes is such a planner,” Ella said. Now a periodontist, he was enrolled in dental school in Memphis, and he wanted to be a year into his practice in northwest Arkansas before they had a child.
Wes and Ella got pregnant the first month they tried. “It kind of surprised me because it took so many of my friends several months.”
Ella was 31 and described her pregnancy as easy. She had the nursery decorated exactly the way she wanted, with her collection of Dr. Seuss prints and photos of those for whom he would be named.
“He came on his due date. I was in labor for 36 hours.”
She started to go into labor on a Sunday and by Tuesday doctors weren’t seeing enough progress. Ella’s epidural failed, and with mom and baby’s stats dropping, the doctor took him by C-section.
Taylor entered the world a healthy, beautiful baby, and for Wes and Ella, life would never be the same.
“He changed my world and he changed Wes’ world,” Ella said.
“It was a love I had never understood before. My mom passed away when I was in high school and I never understood how much she loved me until I had Taylor.”
Ella was a stay-at-home mom, taking Taylor to Gymboree and The Little Gym, toddler music classes at Little Giggles, the local splash pad and other outings. Taylor loved going out, she said, and he wanted to be front and center where he could see and be seen.
Ella said it felt like she was always on the go, but her life had never been so fulfilling. She was a mom and she loved every minute of it, just as Wes loved being a dad.
“It was always what we had planned and it was perfect,” Wes said. “We were so excited about his arrival and we were beginning to plan for his future. I envisioned him wake-boarding at the lake in the summers and snow skiing with us in the winters.”
And there was no question in Wes’ mind, Taylor would excel at everything he did.
“From the very beginning, it was obvious to everyone who saw him: Taylor had a special spark — a touch of magic only God could give. He was quick to smile and found humor in almost everything. His laughter was infectious, just being around him had the ability to make a day brighter,” Ella said.
Last Memorial Day weekend, Ella’s father and stepmother, Gary and Dr. Verona Bebow, kept Taylor while Ella and Wes went to Mexico to attend a wedding. Gary Bebow took his grandson to a golf tournament and at the clubhouse he went from table to table and let all the women hold him.
“He was working the room,” Gary Bebow later told his daughter.
And while Taylor was used to organic foods at home, grandparents have certain privileges and Taylor indulged in McDonald’s and Sonic with the Bebows. “I’m so glad that my dad and Verona got that time together,” Ella said.
With his big blue eyes, Taylor may have looked just like his dad, but he had his mom’s personality. Unlike most toddlers, Taylor loved wearing his hats and getting dressed up. Taylor was so friendly and just so easygoing and on top of that, a really good sleeper.
“Ella and I always talked about how lucky we were to have Taylor, he was perfect in our eyes — exactly how I planned,” Wes said.
“It made so many of my friends jealous because he was so easy and always laughing,” Ella added. “He was my world, and now my world is centered around his foundation.”
Friday, June 14, 2013.
Taylor had a little bit of a cold, and as Ella put it, “I was one of those people who overreacted when he had a fever.”
His temperature climbed to 101, and off they went to the doctor’s office. By the time they got to the waiting room, Taylor was laughing, playing and drinking his apple juice. “I felt a little bit foolish even being there,” Ella admitted, but she would rather play it safe and have him checked out.
“The doctor said he had a little bit of a runny nose and some congestion,” Ella recalled. He was prescribed another round of antibiotics and Ella was told to monitor his temperature, appetite and behavior.
That night was “a very normal night.”
Taylor ate a good dinner, played for a good long while, took his bath and got ready for bed. Taylor’s fever had dropped to near normal, and Ella and Wes felt relieved their son appeared to be on the mend.
Ella said sometimes he would wake up in the night and turn on his mobile, and on that particular night she saw him on the monitor, entertaining himself with his mobile. That was around 3 a.m. She didn’t dare go into Taylor’s room because he would just stay up longer, so she watched from the monitor until he fell back asleep.
The next morning, Wes and Ella were busy getting things together to take to the lake for Father’s Day weekend, letting Taylor sleep. “It wasn’t really abnormal for him to sleep in,” Ella said.
But when they went to get him up, they instantly knew something wasn’t right.
Taylor wasn’t breathing.
Wes started CPR, and Ella called 911. The feeling of helplessness was complete and all-encompassing.
The paramedics arrived and determined Taylor, who had been so full of life, had died earlier in the morning.
“We watched them do everything they could do for Taylor but he was gone,” Ella said.
What came next was a whirlwind of activity.
Since Taylor’s death was “unattended,” the police were summoned. “Our house was full of police and detectives,” Ella said. “It was a nightmare.”
A friend of the families, Mike Low, flew both sets of parents on his plane to Bentonville, then friends and other family started to arrive.
“In an instant, everything I had planned for and prepared for was gone,” Wes said. “My world was upside down. I watched as Ella’s world crumbled around her and I felt so helpless. This was an event I never planned for and everything was out of my control.”
In the blink of an eye, the center of their world was taken, only to be replaced with an empty pit filled with sorrow. The next week was a blur, planning Taylor’s funeral and trying to figure out what happened.
Ella said they still don’t know. “That’s how we found the foundation. There are two other families in this area who have gone through this. One was a 15-month-old who passed away during a nap, and the other was 22 months, and his dad is a heart surgeon. ...”
In the following months, Wes and Ella found the Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood (SUDC) Program and found out that although it is rare, SUDC happens more often than people realize.
At 14 months, Taylor was too old for his death to be classified as SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). Although less common than SIDS, SUDC is defined as the sudden and unexpected death of a child over the age of 12 months. SUDC is a diagnosis of exclusion, one that is given when all known and possible causes of death have been ruled out. This group has more than 600 families who have lost children between the ages of 12 months and 5 years of age, and the number unfortunately grows every day, Ella said.
As the reality of Taylor being gone began to set in, so did the disbelief, confusion and anger. Ella said she would look at the clock and think, “It’s 11 a.m., I need to fix Taylor his lunch and get him down for his nap” or “It’s time to for us to go to the Little Gym.” It was hard to get used to the fact that that chapter of their lives had closed.
Ella said they struggled to make sense of what had happened and find anything they could hold on to that might provide some comfort. They thought about their friends, Patrick and Meredith Woodruff, whose own son Miller had died in 2011 of a genetic disorder called spinal muscular atrophy, and how they’d taken his death and turned it into something positive with the “I’m With Miller Foundation,” raising money, awareness and support for other families dealing with SMA.
It was from that perspective the Taylor McKeen Shelton Foundation was born. Wes and Ella said they hoped that by providing financial support to the SUDC Program, they may one day get answers not only for Taylor’s death but also for the other families in the same situation.
Taylor’s foundation was formed in July 2013 and by raising money through private donations as well as the sale of merchandise with Taylor’s logo, Wes and Ella were able to present $15,000 to the SUDC Program by the end of 2013.
Now, they have planned their first fundraiser dinner, dance and silent auction with music by Pres Ellis and The Lockhouse Band. Dinner will be provided by John 3:16 Ministries.
The event will be at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at The Course at Eagle Mountain. Tickets are $25 per person, and all donations are tax-deductible.
Wes’ dad, Dr. Bill Shelton, will be performing as “Pres Ellis.”
Ella said Shelton has been performing as “Pres Ellis” for years and even performed at her and Wes’ wedding.
For Taylor’s only Halloween, he went as Elvis. “Wes got one of his dad’s old Elvis costumes and I had a replica made for Taylor. ... Wes thought I was crazy for spending what I spent on that, but I look back and I’m very, very glad I did that,” Ella said.
Ella and Wes will also hold a “Tee Off for Taylor” golf tournament June 28 at Shadow Valley in Rogers, along with a dinner, silent auction and live music event that evening. For more information on Taylor’s foundation and tournament, visit www.taylormckeen.com or www.facebook.com/taylormckeenshelton.
SUDC is an international program.
“I feel like every couple of days we get a new child, up to 4 years old, a lot are 3 1/2, 4, even 4 1/2,” Ella said.
She said last February a woman who had liked the Taylor McKeen Shelton Foundation page on Facebook contacted them. Her son had died, and she knew that what had happened to Taylor was also what had happened to her son.
Ella said they’ve since become good friends, and she and Wes will be going on vacation with the woman and her husband.
It helps, Ella noted, to have someone close who knows what one is going through.
“We have no answers,” Ella said, but they might, someday, with research.
“All of them were healthy, happy kids. They were not sick with anything; all of them had an upper respiratory thing but Taylor didn’t even have a fever.”
Wes and Ella continue to navigate their lives, although the fog has begun to dissipate.
Wes said he and Ella had waited so long to have children, and for a time it felt like their lives were finally falling into place — then all of his plans came crashing down.
“I have realized in the past year that no matter how carefully I plan, in the blink of an eye everything can change forever,” he said.
“It’s been a nightmare,” Ella said. “We hope to have more kids one day but right now we’re taking it one day at a time and sometimes one minute at a time.”
And while Wes and Ella can never hold their son’s hand again or watch him grow, they hope to make the difference in the life of a child, creating a legacy that will live on in Taylor’s name.