Sarah Conque, 28, is a small-town girl with a big heart who saved a tiny girl’s life.
She’s never given birth but is a “miracle mommy” in every sense.
It’s no surprise, since family has always been important to Conque.
The youngest of four siblings, she enjoyed a memorable childhood growing up in Carencro, and it’s always been something she’s cherished.
“The thing about Louisiana is how unique the people are,” Conque says. “I love never meeting a stranger. The likelihood of knowing someone’s story by the time a conversation is finished … I love that. I absolutely love that.”
Conque’s been telling her own story a lot lately, and the mind-blowing details have been attracting the attention of news outlets around the world.
She tends to take the “road less traveled” in life, but never did she expect to land back in her hometown raising a Haitian child with a severe brain injury who was abandoned by her mother, a teenage prostitute.
Her story evokes laughter, tears and every emotion in between.
Conque has always had a passion for helping people in need, namely, children with disabilities.
“I got my undergrad in recreation therapy at the University of Southern Mississippi,” she says. “I love people that come up to my hip and below – I enjoy the pediatric setting.”
She landed her dream job interning for the Shriners Hospital in Honolulu, where she worked with children who had disabilities.
“After that, I wanted to stay there, but living in Hawaii is very expensive,” she explains. “They told me to get my master’s, and come back to Maui, where a position would be waiting for me. That was the plan.”
But for Conque, the road in front of her was nothing like she expected.
She returned to Mississippi, pursuing a master’s degree at Ole Miss. The first weekend she was there, Conque took a run around the lake and was stopped by an older man.
“He was asking me questions about the campus,” she recalls. “He said he was there for a wedding and went on his way.”
The next morning, she stumbled upon a church, walked inside and was told there would be a guest speaker.
It was the man she had met the day before.
“He was in town from Scotland, marrying a couple,” Conque said. “It turned out he had a nonprofit that partnered with an organization in Haiti – Danita’s Children.”
The organization’s mission is to rescue, love and care for orphans and impoverished children.
“That was my light-bulb moment, where I needed to look into doing some missionary work.”
Conque scheduled her first visit to Haiti in December 2011. The conditions she walked into were surreal, and the experience changed her entire life trajectory. “It was like the set of a movie,” she says. “We were walking in the village and found a girl, about 4, with cerebral palsy, naked and eating her feces. The missionary knew of the family, that the mom was hiring a babysitter while she was at work. But the sitter was leaving. The neighbors knew but didn’t help.”
Conque explains how, in parts of Haiti, children with disabilities are often seen as “worthless, not valued.”
“I was like, ‘We have to do something right now.’ I said, ‘We have to give her a bath.’ Looking back, that wouldn’t solve her problems, but at least it was something immediate,” she recalls. “We treated her, brought her back … we were gone with her for hours, and nobody even noticed.”
Conque learned that the little girl’s sisters – ages 11 and 6 – were the main caregivers.
“I got 10 feet from the house and broke down,” she says. “My heart was torn out of my chest. I couldn’t act like I hadn’t seen this, like I didn’t have the tools to help. I knew I would be back.”
Conque wanted to pack up and immediately move to Haiti, but she had made commitments to her studies and those involved. She visited every few months, including a one-month trial, because “they want you to really be prepared,” she says.
In May 2013, Conque earned her master’s degree from Ole Miss. Less than one week later, she moved to Haiti.
“I was so ready,” she says. “That preparation time – it was a season where I had to balance my passion with patience. It allowed me to get everything in order, stay with my family … The more they understood my heart, the more at ease they were. They knew it was a calling in my life.”
She signed a two-year commitment, living in the northeast corner of Haiti right at the border of the Dominican Republic. Conque helped pioneer a recreation program at an orphanage/compound. The property consisted of eight orphan homes, a school, church and medical facility.
She spent her time advocating for kids’ needs, focusing on families and trying to prevent the neglect and abandonment that ran rampant.
Conque points to the lack of prenatal care as a leading cause of these atrocious conditions.
“They don’t know the kids will have extraordinary needs,” she says. “Where we were, the majority of women only knew they were pregnant because they were getting a belly and gave birth in home with a midwife.”
While discovering all this darkness, Conque stumbled upon a bright light. She met Stephen Byrne, a California guy who was there doing missionary work as well, and they eventually became a couple.
“Our hearts started facing toward each other a little more, and we knew we were a really good team,” she says. “It all came about around the same time as Nika coming into the orphanage. She kind of brought us together.”
In January 2014, a young woman came into the orphanage with a baby girl, Nika, claiming to be her aunt.
“She said it was her sister’s baby,” Conque explains, “and that (the baby’s mother) had died a month prior, after spilling boiling water on herself and running outside into the rain.”
The story seemed far-fetched, but Nika desperately needed help. The three-month-old had a severely enlarged head, and Conque knew it was hydrocephalus, a condition in which there is excessive fluid on the brain.
“It’s something we see a lot of in Haiti,” she explains. “There’s a free program in Port-au-Prince – I immediately tried to get Nika on the list for treatment.”
For the next two months, Conque worked with the family to prepare baby Nika for surgery. She would have a shunt inserted to remove some of the fluid causing the swelling.
When it came time for the operation, Conque had to trust that Nika’s “aunt” would do the right thing.
“Only one person is allowed to stay with the baby at the hospital,” she explains. “There’s an outdoor area – the mom/guardian sleeps on the rocks while the baby is being treated.”
The day after surgery, Conque got a call from the hospital saying Nika’s aunt had abandoned her.
Conque and her colleagues started searching for the woman who claimed to be Nika’s aunt. Through that process, they found out that she was, in fact, the mother.
“We kind of knew that she was trying to find a home for the baby, but I didn’t want to give up,” Conque says. “Family preservation is very important to me. Being overwhelmed and impoverished is not a reason to put your baby in an orphanage.”
According to Conque, Nika’s mom was a young prostitute who dropped out of school while pregnant.
“But I never judged her for it or treated her any differently,” Conque adds. “I knew that she deserved love and to be shown grace.”
“We kept getting more and more information,” she says. “Nika is half Haitian and half Dominican. We think her mom may have crossed the border to work and that’s where Nika came from.”
Eventually, her mother went back to retrieve Nika from the hospital.
“She told me if we didn’t give her money, she wasn’t going back to get the baby,” Conque recalls. “That started her wanting to get things in return for taking care of her own child. We stood strong and never gave her anything.”
A month after Nika’s surgery, the mother came to the orphanage, again looking for money so Nika could supposedly attend a doctor’s appointment.
“I told her that she broke our trust,” Conque says. “I said, ‘If you don’t lie to me, I will move heaven and earth to help your child.’ We are there to help and support and encourage.”
Over the next few months, Conque never took Nika off her mind.
“People would see her mom bring her out of the house … she wrapped her up like she was dead. You couldn’t even tell she was holding a child,” Conque explains. “That’s how ashamed she was. She didn’t want people to know.”
Finally, Nika’s mom brought her back into the orphanage – and things were bad.
The baby was having seizures, she lost weight, and her incision was infected.
“And all of it could have been prevented,” Conque says. “We have a doctor here, and it’s all offered for free.”
Thankfully, Nika was treated, and her mother was given one last chance.
Conque enrolled them in a free baby-rescue program, where Nika’s mom was expected to bring her once a week for weight checks and therapeutic formula. Initially, she committed – but quickly started skipping appointments.
“She was supposed to be taken off the program,” Conque explains. “But for some reason, I just could not let go of Nika. Her mother seemed very detached. Her actions told us all we needed to know.”
At this point, Nika was 11 months old, and summer was approaching.
“I told her mom, ‘If you show me you can take care of Nika this summer – just keep her alive and well – I will hire a caretaker so you can go back to school.’ My hope was that she would see someone else love Nika, place value on her life, and maybe, she would be encouraged to do the same,” Conque says.
Nika’s mother was supposed to return the following Monday to talk about it.
Not surprisingly, she never showed up.
A couple months later – on Aug. 26, 2014 – she returned to the orphanage with Nika, who was on death’s doorstep.
“She was tiny,” Conque recalls. “I said, ‘We have to move now.’ ”
She and a pastor went to Nika’s house. The baby was completely alone, on the floor lying on a rice sack, with dogs and trash surrounding her.
Nika weighed about six pounds – and more than half of that weight was the fluid that returned to her brain.
“She was just emaciated,” Conque says. “Her mother would feed her like a bird – put the milk in her own mouth and then transfer it into the baby’s mouth. She didn’t have enough strength for a bottle.”
Once Nika’s mother finally returned, Conque was so enraged, she could hardly speak.
“All I could do was say (to them), ‘I love you, and we’ll be back.’ ”
The next day, Conque talked to the missionary’s CEO. She told her Nika’s story – how the mother was provided with tools, didn’t use them and now had a baby close to death.
That was all she needed to hear.
Conque was given the green light to bring this baby to safety, but what seemed like an easy decision was anything but simple.
“In America, there are steps to take a kid from a mom,” she says. “In Haiti, that’s not the process – it’s just my word. I realized the gravity of changing this family’s world. I asked God for one more confirmation.”
And she got what she was looking for.
When Conque returned to the house, Nika was alone again.
“Her mom came running in,” she recalls. “We said we would love to take care of Nika in the orphanage – and she was very excited to say yes.”
But the struggle to save this baby was far from over.
“It was a victory in the fact we were able to take her out of that situation and restore some dignity to her,” Conque explains. “But her organs were failing, and we were fighting for her life. I didn’t have to change her diaper for a week because she was so malnourished.”
Nika’s prognosis was grim.
“We consulted with several American doctors,” Conque says. “They said we were probably going lose her. We spoke life over her, prayed for miracles.”
In the midst of everything, Nika was diagnosed with another lethal condition: hydranencephaly. Much of her brain is missing, and in its place is spinal fluid This was most likely due to a stroke suffered in utero.
“Her condition is incompatible with life,” Conque says. “Ninety-nine percent of babies die within the first year.”
The odds were stacked against little Nika. She desperately needed another drainage for the fluid in her brain, but the hospital refused to put her on the list due to her poor prognosis.
“They essentially laughed me out of there when I asked for a feeding tube,” Conque explains. “The ugly reality there is that lack of medical resources forces doctors to decide whose lives are worth fighting for.”
But Conque refused to stop fighting for this baby’s life – and she soon found her godsend.
A doctor from Mobile, Alabama, was willing to fly to Haiti to insert a feeding tube for Nika, “just for the little chance that she might survive.”
And so far, she has.
“We kept fighting through to the next step,” Conque says. “We knew the prognosis, but we kept fighting. Months went by, and she kept going. We were given that ‘any day’ sentence, but we kept going.”
Perseverance paid off, but the roller coaster continued.
On Feb. 19, 2015, months after doctors predicted she would die, Conque became Nika’s legal guardian. But the baby’s head was getting larger and larger. She desperately needed another shunt and was not going to get it in Haiti. Again, Conque reached out to the doctor in Alabama who helped before, and he located a children’s hospital in Pensacola, Florida, that was willing for perform the surgery.
On May 19, Nika and Conque boarded a plane and headed home to America, and Nika underwent surgery.
“We saw her head size decrease almost two inches,” Conque says. “She lost five pounds in fluid and two inches in height from her head. It has dramatically changed her quality of life.”
After a month in the hospital – during which time all services were performed pro bono – one of the pediatricians invited Nika, Conque and her boyfriend (who accompanied them on the journey) to live in her home. This allowed Nika to remain close to the hospital that was giving her care.
Nika, who had basically been living below sea level her entire life due to the massive amount of fluid on her brain, had to adjust to being “on land.”
And that’s what she has been doing ever since.
At the end of July, the family came home to Carencro.
“Nika and I have a little house,” Conque says. “I wanted to set up an environment that was best for her to succeed.”
Because she’s Nika’s full-time caregiver, Conque is unable to work and relies fully on donations for living expenses.
“This is a hard and humbling process,” she says. “I have a master’s degree and am so capable of working.”
But for now, she’s dedicating her life to saving someone else’s.
What’s the prognosis for Nika?
“She’s thriving,” says Conque.” But it’s still day to day. She laughs, smiles, interacts and knows our voices.”
Conque is eternally grateful for those around the world who have rallied for baby Nika.
Although there’s no treatment to bring back the missing pieces of her brain, she’s overcome so much, and Conque will never, ever stop fighting.
“I believe in her,” she says. “I believe in her potential. There is no part of me that’s ever going to give up on believing in her.”