TRUMAN - Merrick Luniewski is a 5-month-old baby with bright, clear eyes and a smile to melt your heart. He gazes at his dad when he hears his voice, and snuggles against his mom as she tells his story.
He certainly doesn't look sick, his body hiding the months of serious infection that is so rare less than 10 cases are reported in the U.S. annually.
Courtney Luniewski, Merrick's mom, was scheduled to deliver him via cesarean section on March 23.
Courtney and Merrick Luniewski
Her pregnancy was high risk, and although the surgery was five weeks before Merrick's due date, her doctors deemed it necessary for Courtney's health. They tried to prepare Merrick's tiny lungs with steroid injections, but just after his birth, his lungs collapsed.
Merrick was on oxygen for just over a week, and was sent home two weeks after he was born, welcomed by his three older siblings.
Courtney was recovering from her surgery, and Merrick seemed to be out of the woods. Life was returning to normal for the family.
But a week later, Merrick began crying uncharacteristically. It wasn't his typical cry and his worried mom brought him to his scheduled weight check and asked about his distress.
"They told me it was fine," Courtney said.
She took him home, where the crying got worse. By evening, he was crying without sound and seemed confused about how to eat.
By the time they got Merrick to the emergency room in Fairmont, his mom said he was unresponsive.
Merrick was admitted overnight, but doctors couldn't identify the source of his distress.
Tim Luniewski gets tears in his eyes remembering standing over his infant son's hospital bed.
"He was just lying there," he said, "He couldn't communicate. I couldn't do anything for him."
"The next morning the doctor came in and said he wasn't a pediatric specialist and said I could see someone else or send him to Rochester," Courtney said. "We went to Rochester."
After calling ahead, the doctors in Rochester wanted Merrick airlifted by helicopter.
"By the time he arrived his veins had collapsed," Courtney said. "He was in and out."
Courtney said they suspected Merrick had an E. coli infection, but it turned out to be much worse.
Merrick was suffering from salmonella meningitis.
Not long after arriving in Rochester, Merrick began having seizures, leading to the discovery of two abscesses on his brain.
In addition to meningitis, Merrick has cerebritis - inflammation of the cerebrum; ventriculitis - inflammation of the ventricles in the brain; and sepsis - when the body has a severe response to bacteria or other germs.
It was during this time in the hospital that a miracle took place, according to Tim.
Merrick was hooked up to monitors checking levels of all sorts. When his mother picked him up, something special happened.
"When she held him, all his stats stabilized," Tim said.
Merrick stayed in the hospital for four more weeks, returning home with the help of home care nurses and several additional trips to Rochester.
All is not back to normal, however.
"Anytime he has a fever we have to take him in for full blood work," Tim said.
His two sisters and brother have to take care not to touch him too much for fear of illness, something that has been difficult for them.
"It was so tough," Courtney said, "because when we got home (from the hospital the first time) they could hold him."
His mom has taken a leave from her job as a teacher because day care is too much of a risk.
The doctors told them if Merrick doesn't relapse in the first year he will be fine. Until then, the family is on high alert, monitoring him for any sign of a problem.
There are no indications of long-term damage at this point, although Merrick is about one month behind in development, as result of being a preemie.
The family does have health insurance, but the months of hospitalization, testing, and a helicopter ride have added up.
Jodi Graplar went to high school with Courtney and watched the family struggle through this ordeal. She wanted to help.
She has arranged a benefit for Merrick from 5 to 10 p.m. Aug. 25 at Truman's community building, including a meal, silent auction and kids activities.
Tickets are $8. Children 7-12 cost $5; 6 and under are free.
To make a contribution to the auction, call Graplar at (507) 236-0471. A benefit account has been set up at Profinium Financial in Merrick's name.