Roger Marsh: Welcome to Family Talk. I'm Roger Marsh. Do you ever feel like sometimes life throws you a curveball, something you really didn't expect? Well, today's program is the first of a three-day series with our own Dr. James Dobson, and his dear friend Bob Vander Plaats. As Bob and his wife, Darla, were starting their family many years ago, they had a big, "Wow. I didn't see that coming," life-changing moment with the birth of their third son, Lucas. Bob will be sharing their story with us today. And is the subject of the updated and newly released book entitled Light from Lucas: Lessons in Faith from a Fragile Life. This is the second edition of that book. Here now is Dr. James Dobson to introduce today's guest right here on Family Talk.
Dr. James Dobson: I want to introduce my guest today. They've been friends for many, many years and they're sitting in the studio with me today and I'm delighted to have them. They're Bob and Darla Vander Plaats, they've been here before. And we're going to be talking about some very personal things to them. They've been married for almost 40 years. They have raised their kids well. They have four boys that have turned out well, and we're going to talk about one of them today. We'll talk about the highs, the lows, the joys, and the tears of parenthood. Bob is a conservative Christian. He is president and CEO of the Family Leader, which is a family public policy center focused on state issues in Iowa. An organization that I had a hand in helping to start way back in the day.
Bob earned his master's degree in education from Drake University. He began his career as a teacher and basketball coach. And soon became a high school principal of two high schools. And in 1996, Bob was the president and chief executive officer of Opportunities Unlimited. That's an organization that provides rehabilitative services to young adults with brain or spinal cord injuries. He has reason to know a lot about that subject. Then he moved into the political part of his career at the Iowa State Chair for the former Republican presidential candidate, Governor Mike Huckabee in 2008 and served as a national co-chair for Ted Cruz. In fact, I went up and did a rally with you-
Bob Vander Plaats: You did great.
Dr. James Dobson: ... During that.
Bob Vander Plaats: That was awesome.
Dr. James Dobson: That was 2016. Can you believe it's been that long?
Bob Vander Plaats: No.
Dr. James Dobson: Bob ran for Governor of Iowa as a Republican in 2002, 2006 and 2010. You just didn't get the message. Despite the fact that he did not win public office, these campaigns led him to his current position as president and CEO of the Family Leader. It's a position he has held since 2010. Bob married his high school sweetheart, Darla. In fact, what a story that is. You guys knew each other in kindergarten.
Bob Vander Plaats: We've known each other for a long time. We then goes back all the way to church, nursery school. But we did. We graduated kindergarten-
Dr. James Dobson: No, don't tell me you remember that.
Bob Vander Plaats: We don't remember that. We don't even remember kindergarten. But we've been around each other for a long time.
Dr. James Dobson: And married for 40 years. You think it's going to work?
Bob Vander Plaats: I think it's going to work. I tell a lot of people, Dr. Dobson, if she ever leaves me, I'm going with her.
Dr. James Dobson: Well, you were here once before, you and Darla, to talk about your son, Lucas. And you've written a book about Lucas. It's called Light from Lucas. Explain that title to start with, light from a child, and a disabled child at that.
Bob Vander Plaats: Well, Lucas was a child we didn't anticipate, we didn't expect. We had two healthy, normal children if there's such a thing of healthy, normal children with Hans and with Josh. And then Lucas came into our life. And right away we knew there was complications, there was issues. He was a baby with issues is the way the doctor put it. And they didn't know if he's going to live for two days, or two weeks, or two years. And there were a lot of highs and lows, which included me resuscitating Lucas three separate times. Us having five life flight helicopter rides. ICUs, the neonatal intensive care, the IVs, the blood draws, the seizures. And as we were on this journey with Lucas, where you're really embracing each day at a time. And you're really not even contemplating what's the next day look like, you're just trying to get through that day.
But at some point, I decided to write a manuscript called "Lessons from Lucas." Meaning that if God were to take Lucas from us, I didn't want our other boys, Hans and Josh, the two older boys, older brothers to Lucas, or Logan, the gift God gave us as the younger brother to Lucas. And I didn't want those boys to miss the lessons. And little did we know, all of a sudden folks on the family, they read the manuscript. Larry Wheaton, who was the head publisher, said we need to publish this.
Dr. James Dobson: Was I there at that time?
Bob Vander Plaats: You were definitely there at that time. Matter of fact, I think you were the reason we got in to have the book published. And Larry really wanted to publish it, he and the team did. Part of it because it was just a transparent, authentic look at raising a child with disabilities, with unique healthcare-
Dr. James Dobson: Special needs.
Bob Vander Plaats: Special needs.
Dr. James Dobson: We're really kind of dedicating this program today to all those parents out there who have a child with special needs. They're in a class all by themselves, and that's a lonely responsibility, but a very rewarding one, isn't it?
Bob Vander Plaats: It is. And you talked originally about how Darla and I, we graduated from kindergarten together, eighth grade together, high school together, college together. Darla and I were supposed to have kind of like this perfect marriage, perfect family. And this of God threw the fastball through the picture window, and we were left to pick up the pieces. And so these families who are dealing with their own special needs child, uniquely gifted, uniquely crafted, uniquely given a purpose to carry out. But these families still have to deal with the reality of the special needs child with spina bifida. The special needs child with down syndrome. The special needs child with autism, whatever the case might be. And for us, there's a chapter in the book that's called, "It Could be Worse," and I believe that's God's grace. He can always have you look at something and say it could be worse.
And so for Darla and I, part of it could be worse is that Lucas couldn't walk, he couldn't talk. He was confined to a wheelchair, he had a tracheotomy, he had a full spinal fusion surgery. Anybody who gave just a glance at Lucas knew he was severely disabled. And so right away a lot of people had compassion towards Lucas because of him being in that condition. However, there's other children, especially children with autism, they look normal. There doesn't seem to be anything abnormal at all, but yet they have their own high hurdles. And so, that sometimes can be a very tough thing for parents to navigate on. How do you navigate that when they look normal? But it's not always the normal response to things.
Dr. James Dobson: This book is intensely personal. You read it on every page and it's in many ways written to Lucas, isn't it? Many of your letters and commentaries have gone to Lucas, even whether he may not understand them. It was still from your heart a dad talking to his child.
Bob Vander Plaats: And that goes back to Dr. Dobson when you were at focus on the family and Larry Whedon, and that team. When they read the manuscript, one of their suggestions was, what about writing letters to Lucas as if he could read them? And so I wrote the majority of the letters. Darla wrote a letter after the chapter, "Thank God for Moms." Ruth, who was kind of our angel that God put into our life. She wrote a letter after "There's Angels Among Us." And their oldest son Hans, wrote a letter to Lucas too after the chapter, "Leadership Isn't Optional." You don't have a choice if you're going to lead in this situation or not, you need to lead.
But I thought Darla's was particularly touching when she said, "Lucas, I believe when we get to Heaven, I will become more like you than you will become like me." Meaning Lucas had this sense of unconditional love. Whether it be to nurses who just stuck him to get blood draws, or after a seizure and a life flight helicopter ride, or whether it be with us in the family suburban and just starting it up and him hearing the GMC engine roar, that he would clap his chest and smile. He took such satisfaction in the little things. And we really do believe that God uses the weak to teach the strong. And He certainly did that with Lucas.
Roger Marsh: This is Family talk. I'm Roger Marsh, and if you're just joining us, we are listening to today's guest, Bob Vander Plaats and his conversation with our own Dr. James Dobson. Bob is sharing lessons he's learned from the life of his son Lucas. Sadly, Bob and his wife Darla lost their third son in November of 2021. Lucas was battling a very rare brain disorder and ultimately, he lost that battle due to pneumonia. Well, there's so much more to dive into, so let's rejoin Dr. Dobson and Bob Vander Plaats right now, right here on Family Talk.
Dr. James Dobson: Well, the name of the book is Light from Lucas. I want you to explain that and the subtitle is Lessons in Faith from a Fragile Life. Bob Vander Plaats and Darla, you had a role in it as well. I'm going to ask you to read a chapter or a portion of this book that was descriptive of the night Lucas was born and this came obviously from your heart. It starts on page seven. It's the one that grabbed me by the throat. And you described what took place. First of all, tell me if you had anticipated the depth of the difficulties that Lucas was going to deal with.
Bob Vander Plaats: No, we didn't expect that Lucas would be significantly disabled. He was born in 1993. We had two normal pregnancies prior to that. Darla had mentioned that this pregnancy with Lucas was calmer. He wasn't kicking as much. But after our second child, Josh, who loved Josh, but very rambunctious little boy and he kicked a lot. So Darla thought, oh, this is probably a good thing that he's not kicking as much. But the only real concern we had at the time is that Lucas was in breach condition and the doctor said, I believe we should take him by C-section versus natural delivery because of his breach status. And that was the first real indicator that we had that something could be wrong. We still expected a normal healthy boy. Being a basketball coach, I was expecting a small forward would be delivered at this time. I had a point guard and off guard. I needed a small forward at this point.
Dr. James Dobson: And you were looking forward to that.
Bob Vander Plaats: I was looking very much forward to that.
Dr. James Dobson: Well, it's obvious that you were discovering things that were wrenching to you, Bob. I'd like you to read and let us hear and feel what you went through in that long night.
Bob Vander Plaats: You bet. And it begins on page seven and I think for a lot of parents the title of "Expect the Unexpected," because you don't know what's going to happen and the way this one starts, it says, "Bob, Bob, wake up. We're going to have our baby. Darla's voice was filled with anticipation and excitement as she informed me that it was time. This Sunday morning would be the day that we'd experienced the birth of our third child. We had run this drill twice before giving birth to two healthy normal boys. Hans was five going on an intellectual 15. While Joshua was in the midst of his terrible twos. We felt fully prepared for this baby. Naturally, the baby would have unique personality traits and physical characteristics. But we knew all about the labor and delivery process, and the many demands of having a newborn. Although we didn't know the gender of the baby, all of our expectations seemed to be in order.
When I was a high school business teacher and basketball coach, I'd tell my students of my ambition to have five sons. I would joke with them about my plans to create the perfect basketball team composed solely of my own genetics. I'd already identified Hans as my point guard. He was gifted at handling the ball and had an uncanny feel for the game. Josh would be my shooting guard. Josh would love shooting. He loved kicking, hitting, and anything else that would produce offensive assault on a worthy opponent. This Sunday, June 13th, 1993, I was certain that Darla would deliver another member of the perfect starting lineup. Maybe he'd be a talented forward. The perfect compliment to the skillsets of Hans and Josh. I was well on my way to coaching the championship team composed exclusively on my own genetics. Wow. Unfortunately the plans I teased my students about were quickly thwarted when reality proved much differently than lighthearted antidotes. Darla did indeed give birth to a son, but thoughts of championship basketball games grew faint as our own delivery room drama unfolded. The baby was breached in the birth canal preventing a vaginal delivery.
I looked on as the doctors and nurses and minister Darla with an epidural and began cutting into her. I looked on as our son was brought harshly into the world. And I looked on as his medical personnel rushed around him with urgency, signaling that something was very wrong. His head was abnormally large and completely out of proportion with his frail body. His lips and skin were parched blue, craving oxygen. He wasn't pinking up, which heightened the suspicions of everyone in the room. As I looked on in fear, the doctor took me by the arm and led me away from the commotion. He had ordered an air ambulance to transport our newborn son from our hometown hospital in Sheldon, Iowa to a better equipped hospital in Sioux City. The words that he spoke still ring in my head today. 'Babies with issues don't belong in rural hospitals.'
Issues? What did he mean? Babies with issues? This is my baby, Darla's baby. A future member of the Vander Plaats basketball team. Darla and I were the perfect couple. We started out in the church nursery together we were classmates together and high school sweethearts. We have two normal sons and now we have a baby with issues. It didn't make any sense to me. Thoughts whirl through my mind relentlessly. Yet I was determined to remain calm on the outside, appearing strong for Darla and those attending our son. In the midst of the sudden sea of instability, I reached for stability by phoning our parents. This birth announcement was quite unlike those we made with Hans and Josh. It was void of laughter, excitement, and statistical information. Instead, it was one of stunned reality and request for help. "Mom, can you stay with Darla? The Sheldon Hospital. Dad, can you go and meet at St. Luke's in Sioux City? Can you make the necessary phone calls to family and friends? Dan and Beth, can you look after Hans and Josh? Please tell everyone to pray for the son we've yet to hold."
Circumstances were spending out of control and I was pretending to be strong friends, doctors, family members, nurses, strangers, flight technicians, and people requesting signatures came in and out of my confused consciousness, yet I can recall them of vivid detail. Kissing Darla goodbye, headed for the van. My dad was with me as I began the one-hour drive to Sioux City. Yet words are inadequate to describe the intense loneliness I felt as a helicopter carrying our son passed overhead. I was completely helpless. The drive was consumed with rushing thoughts and questions. I don't even know him. He is my son and I can't do a thing for him. Will he be all right? What went wrong? How is Darla? What about Hans and Josh? What will the future hold? Where is God? What if our baby dies? What if he lives?
When we reached the hospital, we were quickly directed to the neonatal intensive care area. The specialist explained the best case scenario first saying that our son could just be a big baby with a big head struggling to breathe. The optimist in me became hopeful. Then they explained numerous other possibilities. He could have a syndrome that would go undiagnosed for several months. He may have birthed effects that could result in a multitude of disabilities. His cranium could be filled with fluid and has little to no brain resulting in death within weeks or even days. My rising hopes were dashed as I signed for the necessary tests. Once the test had begun, the rushing stopped. It was time to catch my breath and begin processing the chaos.
After a deep sigh, a moment of prayer, I picked up the phone to call Darla. She was surely experiencing the same numb helplessness. A mother's designed to nurse, bond, and care for a newborn. This process has been totally interrupted with the chopping of helicopter propellers. And now she's sat in a hospital surrounded by people all alone. No Bob, no Hans, no Josh, no baby. She was left with bland walls in recovering procedures, enduring physical and emotional pain. Our phone conversation was mostly business. We discussed the doctor's information in detail. To the best of my ability, I described the tests that were being performed on our son. And we talked about the range of possibilities from mild to severe disabilities, from normal to dead. Words were sober as our phone call drew to a close. And the question that Darla asked me still sends a chill down my spine. 'What are we going to do if he's not right?'
The emotion in her voice characterized our fear. We were adrift by the unraveling of the day and terrified by the future. What began as excited anticipation and predictability had turned into a moment by moment battle for composure. I'm rarely at a loss for words, but Darla's question hit me like a ton of bricks and I clambered for an answer. What will we do if he isn't right? I paused in silence, remembering my role in this reality drama. I'm the man. I am supposed to be tough. I should be able to handle anything that comes my way. My voice was quiet and broken as I said, 'We'll get through it. We'll get through it.'"
Dr. James Dobson: Oh, the passion I spoke of is there in your voice. The reason I ask you to read that, Bob, is that we're talking to many people who have been right there at that moment. They've experienced it there now. It's not over for them. They're still going through it day, by day, by day. I spent 17 years at Children's Hospital of Los Angeles in the divisions of medical genetics and child development. I saw a Lucas, many, many Lucases. And I saw the pain in the parents. And I wanted to do this program today because I wanted you in your own way to minister to those people who are crying right now. They've been there, they've given birth to a child who isn't right. And that was just the beginning. Now you lost Lucas couple of years ago.
Bob Vander Plaats: It was November 22nd, 2021,
Dr. James Dobson: And there are a lot of decisions to be made from the time of the birth until the time that you lost him. There was a point at which you had to admit he needs more care than we can give.
Bob Vander Plaats: First of all, anytime a couple gets pregnant, most of the time they're filled with optimism. They they're looking forward to this child, this son, this daughter, and they have hopes and dreams for that son or daughter. And then when that fastball does get thrown through that picture window and all of a sudden there's a whole new reality. What happens here? The good news for Darla and I is that we get to experience Christian community in a fresh way. People praying for us, people lifting us up, and coming around Lucas and our family in a very special way.
Roger Marsh: Wow, what a powerful testimony from Bob Vander Plaats today here on Family Talk. I'm Roger Marsh, and be sure to tune in again tomorrow for part two of this powerful three day conversation Bob had recently with our own Dr. James Dobson. Most people consider being a mom to be an amazing privilege, and it is. But at the same time, it's also perhaps the toughest job on the planet, which is why every mom deserves our appreciation and respect. And that's why just for moms, we've created a practical parenting resource called Empowering Moms. The Empowering Mom series, five minute installments that are designed to help you with timeless scriptural truths and a prayer to encourage, renew, and inspire you and your family each and every day. To sign up for yours, just go to drjamesdobson.org/empoweringmoms. That's drjamesdobson.org/empoweringmoms.
Now, before we leave the air for today, a reminder about a special concern here at the Dr. James Dobson Family Institute. Numerous ministries all across the country are experiencing a serious financial shortfall, a decline in contributions, if you will, and the JDFI is no exception to that rule. We realize that many families are deeply concerned about what they perceive as a financial crisis. It leaves them with fewer and fewer discretionary resources, and when you're just trying to keep your family fed, keep a roof over your head, and keep clothes on your back, that can certainly be a challenge. If you find yourself in a position where you can stand with us financially and even give a little bit more above and beyond what you would ordinarily contribute to the ministry, we greatly appreciate that financial support. And whether or not you're able to support us financially right now, please know how much we also appreciate and covet your prayers for the ministry of the Dr. James Dobson Family Institute.
And please know that we're praying for you as well, and we're trusting that God will meet all of your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus. To learn more about how to support the JDFI, you can do so online at drjamesdobson.org. You can also reach us by phone at 877-732-6825. I'm Roger Marsh inviting you to join us again tomorrow for part two of this powerful conversation featuring Bob Vander Plaats and Dr. James Dobson. Until then, may God continue to richly bless you and your family as you grow deeper in your relationship with him.
Announcer: This has been a presentation of the Dr. James Dobson Family Institute.