Metro-East Living

Her father died the day she was born. A hospital nurse remembers their final moments.

Baby and nurse reunite 23 years after tragedy

St. Elizabeth's Hospital nurse Janeen Dawson remembers when Theresa Jousett's father met his baby girl on July 6, 1995, hours before he was killed in a car accident. Dawson recently cared for Jouett's newborn.
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St. Elizabeth's Hospital nurse Janeen Dawson remembers when Theresa Jousett's father met his baby girl on July 6, 1995, hours before he was killed in a car accident. Dawson recently cared for Jouett's newborn.

Theresa Jouett wanted a particular nurse to care for her newborn son in the nursery at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in O’Fallon last month.

That’s because the nurse, Janeen Dawson, also cared for Theresa on July 6, 1995, the day she was born and the day her father died in a car crash.

Theresa didn’t know about Janeen until February, when she was visiting a relative in the hospital and Janeen introduced herself.

“I just cried,” said Theresa, 23, of Fairview Heights. “I felt connected to her when I hugged her. I felt like I was supposed to meet her. I just felt that in my heart.”

The reunion was emotional for Janeen, too. She had never forgotten that July day, which began with such joy and ended in such tragedy.

Sherry Jouett had given birth to Theresa — her second child with husband Roger Jouett — early in the morning at the former St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Belleville.

Roger and Sherry.jpg
Roger Jouett and Sherry Hensley posed for this engagement photo in 1985. They would later marry and have two children, Eric and Theresa, but Roger died in a car crash on the day Theresa was born in 1995. Provided

In those days, newborns were whisked away to be bathed and warmed up in the nursery before they were presented to their parents.

But the Jouetts couldn’t wait to see baby Theresa. They stood at the nursery window and watched staff working with her, then Sherry went back to her room to rest while Roger headed to the warming bed to meet his daughter.

“He put his finger in (Theresa’s) hand, and she held onto it,” recalls Janeen, 49, of Fairview Heights. “She didn’t want to let it go. Babies have an innate sense. They feel things. It’s something that’s unsaid. It’s just felt.”

Theresa would never see her father again. He died about 2:30 that afternoon.

Contractions started at VP Fair

Roger, 35, of Swansea, was a union plasterer working on the Trans World Dome, now the Dome at America’s Center, in the summer of 1995. He and Sherry had a 4-year-old son, Eric, and another child on the way.

They didn’t know the baby’s gender, as Sherry’s ultrasound had been inconclusive.

Sherry agreed to go to the VP Fair on the St. Louis riverfront all three days — July 3, 4 and 5 — despite hot and humid weather. She knew her husband and son loved fireworks and air shows.

“(Theresa) was supposed to be born on July 4, but she was late,” said Sherry, 54, of Fairview Heights, whose last name is now Brown. “That’s why my nickname for her is ‘firecracker.’”

Sherry began having contractions at the fair on Wednesday, July 5, but the couple still took time to stop at Dairy Haven in Caseyville to get ice cream for Eric on the way home.

They checked into St. Elizabeth’s about 11:30 p.m. Theresa was born at 6:40 the next morning.

“I’ve never seen (Roger) so proud,” Sherry said. “He loved his son dearly, but he wanted a girl so bad. He was so happy to have a little princess.”

Baby Theresa.jpg
Roger Jouett took this photo of his newborn daughter, Theresa, on July 6, 1995, at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Belleville. He died hours later in a car crash between Swansea and Fairview Heights. Provided

Nursery staff inked Theresa’s feet and stamped them on a souvenir birth certificate for the Jouetts. Then Roger asked if he could get his arms stamped, too.

Today, that’s what stands out most in nurse Janeen’s mind — the tiny footprints on Roger’s arms as he held his daughter’s hand in the warming bed.

“He was telling her that he loved her,” Janeen said. “You could tell he was so happy. He was so excited about her.”

Head-on collision on Sullivan Drive

Roger took a few Polaroids of Theresa before leaving St. Elizabeth’s about 9:45 a.m. His paycheck was ready to be picked up, and he wanted to buy his baby girl a dress to wear home from the hospital.

Roger’s work buddies in St. Louis took him out for a celebratory lunch, then he headed back to Fairview Heights to pick up son, Eric, at his in-laws’ house.

He never made it.

Roger was killed in a head-on collision on Sullivan Drive, in an unincorporated area between Swansea and Fairview Heights. Police speculated he may have fallen asleep and crossed the center line, according to a July 7, 1995, story in the News-Democrat.

“He was up all night with my daughter,” father-in-law Virgil Hensley was quoted as saying. “He called us about 3 in the morning and told us she was in labor. The baby was born about 6 o’clock this morning.”

Paramedics performed CPR and rushed Roger to Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead in the emergency room. The likely cause of death was a puncture wound to the head.

The driver of the other car, Keith Gerstein, 26, of Webster Groves, Missouri, also was taken to the hospital in serious condition.

“Jouett still had baby footprints stamped on his arm, while a picture of the newborn was on the dash of his 1992 Ford Tempo,” the News-Democrat story stated.

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Theresa Jouett, center, poses with 3-week-old son Neal Allen and, clockwise from lower left, daughter Rayn Southers, 6, grandmother Judy Hensley, mother Sherry Brown and son Jackson Straughn, 2. Derik Holtmann

Emergency personnel were still on the accident scene when Sherry’s mother, Judy Hensley, a records clerk at St. Elizabeth’s, drove up and recognized the Jouetts’ car.

Sherry remembers her father coming into her hospital room, looking down at the floor and struggling to get up the nerve to tell her what had happened to her husband and “soul mate.”

“I said, ‘Roger’s dead, isn’t he?’ And he said, ‘How did you know?’ And I said, ‘I just knew.’ I literally felt my heart breaking. It changed our lives forever.”

Sherry checked herself out of the hospital early to go home and be with her kids. It wasn’t until she got to the funeral home and looked into Roger’s casket that she saw the tiny footprints on his arms.

Baby is named after grandfather

Eventually, Sherry married Roger’s best friend, Wayne Brown, and they stayed together for 11 years before divorcing. She worked as a supervisor for a cleaning company while raising Theresa and Eric.

Theresa was 10 years old when she decided to start celebrating her birthday on July 4 instead of July 6. It didn’t seem right to eat cake and open gifts on the anniversary of her father’s death.

“It was just too hard,” she said.

Theresa went on to attend Belleville West High School. She now is earning her GED and working as a cashier at Hucks convenience store in Swansea.

Sherry and Judy live with Theresa and help care for her three children, daughter Rayn Southers, 6, and sons Jackson Straughn, 2, and Neal Allen, 3 weeks.

The baby is named after his late grandfather, Roger, whose middle name was “Neal.” The baby’s father is Cody Allen, Theresa’s boyfriend.

Janeen Dawson was in her mid-20s when she joined the staff at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Belleville, and since that time, she has always worked in the nursery, caring for newborns. Provided

Theresa met nurse Janeen in February while visiting her cousin, Katelyn Silva, who was having a baby at St. Elizabeth’s. Janeen had overheard family members talking about Roger’s death, and it immediately triggered memories.

“We were all just overwhelmed with emotion at the time,” she said. “We all love what we do. We develop relationships with our babies and the moms and the dads. It hit us pretty hard.”

Theresa gave birth to Neal on the Friday after Thanksgiving. She called Janeen from her hospital bed and was thrilled to learn that Janeen already had been scheduled to work that weekend, allowing her to spend time with the baby.

For Theresa, the best part of reconnecting with Janeen has been finding out what happened during her last few minutes — her only few minutes — with her father.

“I don’t even have a picture with him,” Theresa said. “There are pictures of me with my mom and the nurses, but not with him. He was the one taking the pictures.”

Teri Maddox has been a reporter for 35 years, joining the Belleville News-Democrat in 1990. She also teaches journalism at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park. She holds degrees from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and University of Wisconsin-Madison.