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PHOTO CAPTION:  A model of an infant's foot is ready to be presented to parents as a final memento. Staff at San Antonio Military Medical Center create these models to bring comfort to families who have lost a child.

August 27, 2013
By Brooke Army Medical Center Public Affairs

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas -- Amy Beyer cradles a tiny plaster model of an infant's hand in her palm, gently sanding each crease, wrinkle and fingernail. After several moments, she takes a step back to survey her work, tilting her head and squinting slightly as she hunts for imperfections.

"They'll like this," she said at last with a sigh of relief, referring to parents who had lost their baby just weeks prior.

Beyer, a social worker in the neonatal intensive care unit, spends hours each month meticulously crafting 3-D models of hands, feet and even faces in the hopes of bringing a measure of comfort to family members who have lost a child at San Antonio Military Medical Center here.

"We do this to preserve memories for families, and to show them that we care deeply about them in their time of loss," she said.

Beyer first learned of the program while working for the NICU at Wilford Hall Medical Center in 2007. When the department moved to SAMMC in 2011, Beyer and a former co-worker, Air Force Capt. Crystal Gomez, sought to keep the program's momentum going here.

Since that time, Beyer, along with a handful of other staff members, has painstakingly created hundreds of these models -- from impressions to pouring plaster to sanding and glazing -- for babies who are born as early as 20-weeks gestation and teens up to age 17. Always striving for more lifelike perfection, she has painted fingernails a perfectly matched shade of red, carefully captured the nuances of a cherished ring or the individual curve of a tiny toenail.

"For the occasional newborns who are unable to survive their illness, our focus and purpose as care providers shifts from the baby to helping the family through the painful loss of their child," explained Air Force Lt. Col. Daniel Dirnberger, chief and director of Neonatal Medicine Services at SAMMC.

"Having a tangible 3-dimensional replica of their baby's hands and feet gives them something that photos can never satisfy," he said. "They can touch and hold their baby's hand, and it keeps their connection tangible and real."

To broaden the scope of the program, Beyer has partnered with the Department of Maxillofacial Prosthetics at SAMMC, a department skilled at making impressions and crafting models. They will assist with making the models using dental stone, a harder, more durable material than plaster and will offer a wider range of options, including blue and pink models, explained Air Force Col. Alan Sutton, director of Maxillofacial Prosthetics.

"This collaboration will improve the quality and durability of our keepsakes, and will help us help our families that much more," Dirnberger said. "This is one way that Ms. Beyer takes our perinatal loss program beyond what I see anywhere else in San Antonio and throughout the [Defense Department]."

For Beyer, the hours of meticulous work melt away when she sees the gratitude in a family member's eyes -- mixed emotions of sadness and joy. "They hold the hand or foot for the first time and point out the little creases or the toenails, and they are so happy to have something of their baby," she said.

Beyer recalls one Mom, Nikki Pinto, whose son Matteo passed away here when he was 5-and-a-half-months old. She created handprints, along with multiple 3-D models of his hands and feet -- enough to pass on to parents, grandparents and in-laws.

Pinto said she treasures her models, proudly displaying them in her curio cabinet. "I love my pictures of Matteo, but these models are something tangible I can touch and cherish," she said. "The detail is amazing; every wrinkle and fingernail is perfect.

"To know that his foot or hand touched the mold … it's priceless," she added. "It's so much more than just a picture -- it's a piece of him."

Beyer said another mom was speechless for several moments as she examined the models while sitting on a hospital bed in the NICU. "That's my baby," she finally said, tears streaming down her cheeks.

"Soon we were all crying and hugging, and I knew we had made a world of difference," Beyer said. "We had given her something tangible of her baby to take home.

"These models aren't a big gift -- they're not expensive and take just a few hours to make," she said. "But they will live on for these families for years to come."