By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Jennifer and Brian Larsen took turns holding their adorable 3-year-old daughter, Melody, while talking with friends and well-wishers Sunday morning on the oceanfront Promenade in Sea Isle City.
For just a tragically short time, Jennifer and Brian had another child, Leif Aleutian, who would have been Melody’s little brother now. Born prematurely, Leif died on Oct. 13, 2019, after a 52-hour fight for his life.
“It was devastating,” Brian said. “It’s like a huge void and loss in your whole life.”
The Larsens, who live in Sea Isle, wanted to commemorate their son’s brief life by raising awareness of premature birth and infant mortality, so they started the nonprofit Leif Aleutian Foundation.
On a breezy and chilly Sunday morning, the Larsens were joined on the Promenade by more than 100 people for the second annual Leif’s Legacy 5K Fun Run and Walk to raise money for two hospitals through their foundation.
The Sea Isle fundraiser followed another Leif’s Legacy walk and run that the Larsens held in Alaska on Sept. 4 for their foundation. Jennifer Larsen said the Alaska event brought in nearly $3,000 in donations and the hope is to raise an additional $3,000 in Sea Isle.
“It’s a huge thing for us to see so many people who support our local hospitals and get involved in the whole issue of infant loss,” Brian Larsen said of the fundraising effort.
Proceeds from the fundraisers will benefit Shore Medical Center’s Special Care Nursery in Somers Point and the Dahl Memorial Clinic in Skagway, Alaska. Dahl Memorial Clinic is where the Larsen family receives medical services when Brian and Jennifer work in Alaska during the summer.
Brian Cahill, marketing director of Shore Medical Center, said the hospital is grateful for the support it receives from the Larsens and the marketing partnership it has established with the Leif Aleutian Foundation.
Cahill noted that the foundation helped to raise about $3,000 for Shore Medical Center’s Special Care Nursery, which takes care of babies born prematurely or with special needs.
Brian Larsen, 40, has a bulkhead and marina construction business in Sea Isle. In the summer, he works in Alaska as a commercial fisherman. Jennifer Larsen, 34, works in Alaska during the summer as a biologist for the National Park Service.
It was while the Larsens were living in Alaska that Jennifer suffered severe bleeding and prematurely gave birth to Leif on Oct. 11, 2019, after only 26 weeks of pregnancy.
Jennifer was airlifted from Alaska to the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. However, Leif’s lungs were too underdeveloped to breathe on his own and he died two days later in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit.
Hoping to help other families, the Larsens established the Leif Aleutian Foundation to raise awareness of premature birth, pregnancy loss and infant mortality in the United States.
“We want to make this more of a talking point by raising awareness of premature birth and infant death,” Jennifer Larsen said.
Premature babies have a higher risk of brain, lung and digestive complications that could lead to death within the first year of life, according to the Population Reference Bureau website.
Galloway Township resident Kayleigh Sena, one of Jennifer Larsen’s friends and a former classmate at Stockton University, said she experienced the tragedy of infant death when she had a miscarriage in 2019.
Accompanied by her husband, Brian and daughters, Addie, 4, and 21-month-old Ellie, Sena participated in the fundraising walk on Sunday.
Alluding to her miscarriage, Sena called the efforts of the Leif Aleutian Foundation something “near and dear to my heart.”
“They’ve turned something negative into something positive,” she said of the Larsens. “They have a unique and uplifting perspective of it all.”