“Miss Lira, my name is Zully — I’m Junior’s mom,” the woman told her in Spanish, gasping between breaths, Lira recalled. “I need your help. Please call my husband and help him and my son. I’m at the hospital, and I’m going to have an emergency C-section.”
Zully said that she was about to give birth to her second child but that she had covid-19 and was in respiratory distress. She and her family had recently moved to the United States from Guatemala.
Lira called Zully’s husband, Marvin, and he gave permission for her to communicate with medical staff and act as the go-between for the family. Zully and Marvin asked that their last names not be published for privacy reasons.
Doctors monitored Zully for two days, then delivered her baby, Neysel, five weeks early. The infant, who weighed 5 pounds, 12 ounces, was sent to the newborn intensive care unit for observation, while Zully was put on a ventilator and remained in a coma for more than three weeks.
“They didn’t think she was going to make it,” said Lira, 42.
And the news worsened from there.
Junior, 7, and his stepfather needed to be tested for the coronavirus. If positive, they could quarantine at home, but there was not a plan for what would happen to Neysel.
Lira had been in contact with the hospital monitoring the situation. She decided there was only one option, and called Marvin.
“I know that you don't know me, and I don't know you,” she recalled telling him. “But if you want, I can take the baby with me until after you are tested. Then you can come and get your son from me."
Marvin sobbed and agreed to her proposal. “I'm going to trust you,” he told her.
So on April 7, with Zully intubated in intensive care, and Marvin and Junior isolated at home, Lira bought a car seat, bassinet, diapers and formula at a local Target store, then drove to Stamford Hospital to bring home a newborn for the first time since her son, Christopher, was born 11 years ago.
When news came back two days later that Junior and his stepfather had tested positive for the coronavirus (Neysel had tested negative), Lira’s family quickly settled into a new routine of feedings and diaper changes.
Now, Lira handles most of the daytime caregiver duties while also teaching ESL online classes for grades K through 5 at Stamford's Hart Magnet Elementary School. Then she's also up most of the night with Neysel, she said.
“I'm exhausted, yes, but it's very rewarding,” said Lira, a schoolteacher for two decades who is donating her own funds to eight other students' families to help with food and rent during the pandemic.
“Neysel is a preemie, so he needs to be fed every two hours or so,” she said, “and he loves to stay awake most of the night. But I am honored that the family wanted me to help."
Although Zully was recently released from the hospital and is recovering at home with Marvin and Junior, she is still too weak to walk on her own and hold Neysel, Lira said. So Lira will continue to care for the infant as long as necessary.
“More than anything, I would love for Zully to have him back and hold him in her arms on Mother's Day,” she said. “But that may not be possible, so I am happy to do what I can."
Word about Lira's kindness quickly spread through the community after another teacher at her school, Joy Colon, shared a post on Facebook about how her friend had stepped up. Soon, local reporters were calling and dozens of friends and strangers were chiming in with offers to help with baby supplies.
“Lu was always amazing, and now the world knows,” said Colon, 43, who has known Lira for 17 years. “Not one person who truly knows her is surprised by her actions, but we remain in awe."
Several days after Lira brought Neysel home to join Christopher, 11, and her husband, Alex, 45, who works for a bank, she realized there was probably another reason she had stepped in to care for the baby, she said.
In 2009, she was expecting twins, and at her fourth-month checkup, doctors told Lira that the heartbeat of one of the babies had stopped, she said.
Her baby boy, Christopher, was delivered six weeks early during a four-hour C-section.
“They wanted to intubate me, but I wouldn’t allow it — I wanted to meet my baby,” she said. “The medical team was worried that I wasn’t going to make it. I was in pretty bad condition after the delivery.”
Like Zully, Lira spent several weeks in critical condition in intensive care, while her son was whisked away to the NICU at Stamford Hospital.
“We were miracles — just like Zully and Neysel,” she said.
Lira is making a scrapbook for Neysel, and she has regular FaceTime visits with Zully and Marvin to fill them in on their son’s first smiles, his sleep schedule and his sweet demeanor, she said.
The infant regularly naps on her lap while she conducts Zoom meetings with her ESL students — some of whom like to offer her baby advice.
“One of my students told me, ‘Mrs. Lira, you have a big responsibility on your plate right now, so if you need help, my mommy has a baby girl and she knows a lot about babies,’ ” Lira said. “It’s been nice to teach these kids that they can be compassionate and caring to somebody they don’t know.”
Lira has started a GoFundMe for Neysel, whose parents have lost their restaurant jobs, she said. More than $26,000 has been donated.
“My hope for this family is that they'll soon have their baby home and be able to hold him in their arms,” Lira said. “When he leaves me, I will miss him a lot."
Then she laughed. “But I have a feeling that one day, he will be one of my students.”
Have a story for Inspired Life? Here’s how to submit.