Aquene Hope Gallahorn was born six weeks early on Oct. 18, but still weighed a healthy 7 pounds. Her parents, Leah Gallahorn and Robert Kilby, said she was a happy baby whose favorite thing was to watch the ceiling fan spin. Her name, pronounced ah-KEEN-ah, meant peace. They sang to her each morning. Gallahorn took a picture of her every day of her short life.
Her parents found Aquene dead on New Year's Eve. The medical examiner said the cause of death was sudden infant death syndrome. In Alaska, roughly two babies are lost each month to sleep-related deaths.
"Last year was the best year of my life and on New Year's, my world fell apart." Kilby said. "But out of it, you have to fight back and make something."
So he and Gallahorn did. Turning grief into action, Gallahorn started a fundraising project in March to buy a handful of Owlets, a specialized pulse oximetry monitor that keeps track of a baby's heart rate and oxygen levels while they sleep. The initially modest effort — Gallahorn only wanted to buy four — has grown to more than $10,000 raised, enough to buy 56 of the monitors that alert parents if their baby's vital signals drop.
Gallahorn plans to continue fundraising for as long as she needs to.
"It can consume you" Gallahorn said of her grief. "You can either be mad or you can try to do something positive."
Finding the Owlet
For Gallahorn, it started with Facebook ads for the Owlet she saw several weeks after Aquene's death. The device had been around for several months by the time her daughter was born, but Gallahorn said she'd never heard of it before then.
"I started to freak out about it for friends that were pregnant that might not know about it," she said. "It could have been something that saved Aquene's life."
She bought one to give to a friend, but then realized that she had four other friends with newborns. Quickly, Gallahorn became obsessed with trying to get them monitors.
The devices aren't cheap, retailing at $225. Gallahorn, a chef who operates the Bear Mace Bites food truck and hot sauce company with Kilby, knew she couldn't afford to buy one for each of them.
So she started a GoFundMe page, calling it Aquene's Army, with a modest goal of $1,200. Within an hour, the goal was met.
With so much interest, she increased the goal — first to $2,000, then $10,000, now $50,000.
"It got really big, really fast," Gallahorn said.
‘Sense of security’
Home pulse oximetry monitors have been around for years, according to Sabra Anckner, perinatal nurse consultant with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, but they've always been prescribed by doctors to infants with special needs. Home monitors for healthy babies have only recently entered the marketplace, she said.
Anckner said the state has no official position for or against commercial products like the Owlet. But she added that there's no evidence she knows of to support that they are needed in a home setting with a healthy child.
Gallahorn said she's aware of criticisms of the device, but thinks the peace of mind and possible life-saving benefits outweigh them.
"It's just another sense of security," she said.
She gives the monitors out to anyone who wants one, regardless of where they live, with no questions asked, prioritizing people in Alaska and children with medical conditions. Currently, about 40 people are on the waiting list to receive a monitor.
But for Stella Salazar, who received an Owlet from Gallahorn two months ago, the device has been invaluable. On Tuesday night, Salazar said she woke to her phone alarming when the oxygen levels of her 4-month-old son, Agapito, dipped to 80 percent.
"I was scared. I just wanted him to wake up and have him respond to me and know that I was there with him," she said in a phone interview Wednesday. "My mind was just racing that he was OK and that he'll respond by me talking to him."
Salazar, 25, woke her baby and rocked him back and forth, watching his oxygen levels creep up toward 100 percent. The next day, Agapito was doing fine.
Salazar said without Gallahorn's help she wouldn't have been able to afford the monitor. It gives her more peace of mind, something that was confirmed after Tuesday night.
"I am very thankful for what she's doing," she said. "We were fortunate and blessed to have that monitor."
Gallahorn hopes to one day start a nonprofit that gives out the devices. Until then, she'll continue to fundraise and send them out. She said with every box she sends a note and a picture of Aquene. In it, her daughter wears a onesie with heart print and striped leggings, holding a hand above her head, her index finger extended. She's No. 1, Gallahorn said. It was taken Dec. 18, just a few weeks before her death.
"(The Owlet is) priceless, really," Gallahorn said. "You might think it's not necessary, but it definitely is."