A sick baby. A worried mom. Diagnosis: Abuse?


HOUSTON (NBC News) — Just after 9 p.m. on a Sunday two years ago, with Hurricane Harvey’s flood waters filling her Houston home and more rain falling, Ajshay James climbed into a rescue boat, holding her daughter, Harper.

“I need to get her to Texas Children’s Hospital,” James told the firefighters.

Harper, not yet 2, had been in and out of hospitals her entire life. Born nearly four months early, she spent her first 16 weeks in an incubator, connected to a machine that pumped oxygen in and out of her still-developing lungs. Her skin was thin and fragile, like plastic wrap. Each time Harper’s breathing slowed dangerously in those early months, James cried and prayed as nurses rushed to revive her.

When Harper finally left the hospital at five months, doctors sent her with a device to monitor her heart rate and breathing. After its alarm sounded a few weeks later, Harper underwent surgery at Texas Children’s, one of the nation’s top-ranked pediatric hospitals, to correct an airway defect. 

In the months that followed, doctors there wrote orders for continuous oxygen support, physical therapy and around-the-clock home nursing care. A neurologist recommended anti-seizure medication after James raised concerns about shaking spells.

Harper was born nearly four months early.

As a single mom, James built her life around Harper’s medical needs, always on guard for signs of distress. When forecasters warned of a massive hurricane heading for Texas in August 2017, James worried she might lose power or run out of Harper’s oxygen.

Murky water was still rising as they climbed off the rescue boat and into a fire truck. The road to Texas Children’s main campus was impassable, a voice on the radio said, but an ambulance could take them to one of the hospital’s facilities in the suburbs.

James felt relief hours later as they pulled up to Texas Children’s Hospital West Campus. Harper was safe now, she thought.

Doctors there, however, soon identified what they believed was another threat to the girl’s safety.

It wasn’t the hurricane they wanted to protect her from. It was her mom.

Ajshay James on her daughter’s bed, with a stuffed lamb that is bigger than Harper was when she was born. (Elizabeth Conley / Houston Chronicle)

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