After an infertility battle, two parents are thanking NASCAR's Kyle Busch this Mother's Day
His name is Carson Leigh Sullivan. He is 17 pounds of soft-haired, blue-eyed contentedness, resting comfortably in the arms of his father. Carson's first name fulfills his dad's desire for a good Irish name. His middle name comes from his mom, Jennifer, and dad, Brendan, who by coincidence both have that as their middle names, spelled the same.
Brendan is holding Carson, who is 4½ months old, in The Speedway Club, a restaurant high above Charlotte Motor Speedway, home of two Monster Energy NASCAR Cup races every year.
For the past hour, his parents have been telling stories about him as he powered through a milk coma. Some day his parents will tell him about attending races at the track, about how his dad wore gear from his favorite driver, Kyle Busch, and endured taunts from the vocal and voluminous anti-Busch crowd. That will be a neat story, of course, a ha-ha tale of what fans endure to show allegiance to their sports heroes.
And some day his parents will tell Carson a story about the events leading up to the day he was born. That incredible-but-true story will have more twists and turns than a road course, and Kyle Busch, along with his wife, Samantha, will be featured characters in that tale, too.
When hope runs out ... and gets refilled
Jenn, 35, and Brendan, 37, were born in the same Washington, D.C., area hospital and delivered by the same doctor, 14 months apart. They went to the same middle school and the same high school but didn't start dating until they worked together after graduating.
In 2005, Jenn and Brendan flew to Las Vegas to get married and then moved from the Washington area to Charlotte, North Carolina. They started trying to have kids in 2010.
Not long after they began, Brendan's brother, Shawn, died of a heart attack. Brendan and Jenn took in Shawn's two teenaged children and raised them. Because of that, they put off trying to have biological children. Their niece still lives with them during breaks from her studies at the University of North Carolina. Their nephew stayed with them for three years before moving back to Maryland to live with his maternal grandmother.
With their niece in college and their nephew gone, Jenn and Brendan started trying to have kids again in late 2013. They had a miscarriage in August of 2014 and were unsuccessful in their attempts to get pregnant again after that. They sought treatment at REACH (Reproductive Endocrinology Associates of Charlotte), a fertility clinic. Intrauterine insemination (IUI) didn't work and neither did two rounds of in vitro fertilization (IVF). They were out of options, out of hope, out of money. "We depleted everything that we had and then some," Jenn says.
They gave up on their dream of having their own baby ... or tried to. "I don't think in your heart, you're ever ready to ..." Brendan's voice catches. He pauses for 15 seconds to collect himself. He casts his eyes down into Carson's face, which looks strikingly like his own.
He starts again. "To give up."
Five more seconds go by.
"At that point, it's more of a financial decision. But in your heart ... "
Eight more seconds ...
"It's not that easy."
A nurse at REACH encouraged the Sullivans to apply for a grant from Bundle of Joy, a charity run by Samantha and Kyle Busch under the Kyle Busch Foundation. Kyle and Samantha started Bundle of Joy after they struggled to get pregnant for more than a year, discovering they both had infertility issues, and turning to IVF treatment at REACH. Their son, Brexton, turns 2 next week.
They see Bundle of Joy as a way to give meaning to their infertility pain. Samantha Busch says they prayed about the issue frequently and felt led by God to use their own story to help others and raise awareness about infertility. "Learning about it and going through the IVF process, it shined a light that we have a greater opportunity to give back to the community, to give back to other families," Kyle Busch says.
The Sullivans took home the application. Filling it out took days; Jenn and Brendan wrote it, rewrote it, printed it out, threw it away and started over. "It wasn't even about asking somebody to give us money," Jenn says. "That's not what it felt like. To me, I was sharing my story with somebody who understood, more so than anything else."
The Busches have a love-hate relationship with the applications. REACH officials go over the applications first. Based on a variety of factors, including financial need, REACH separates them into four categories -- love, like, neutral and no, with the no reserved for families that REACH medical professionals believe have essentially no chance of getting pregnant. They want Bundle of Joy to be about hope, but not false hope.
All of the applications are sent to Samantha and Kyle, and they choose five for grants. The first round of grants generated only five applications. Now each round brings 30 to 50. Samantha says they follow REACH's advice roughly 80 percent of the time, and in the remaining 20 percent she follows her heart when an application touches her, even if the chances of success are low.
Samantha and Kyle read a handful of applications at a time, usually at night after they have put Brexton to bed. Samantha skips by the facts on the application -- name, profession, etc. -- and goes right for the story that pulsates like the application's beating heart. They are all devastating to read. One woman detailed the number of days they had been trying to get pregnant (942), another reported she had nine miscarriages, and Samantha sees a bit of her own story in all of them.
"When people are brutally honest, like Samantha, who shared everything on her blog, that's when you really get the sense. That's when Samantha will shed a tear when she's reading it, like, This is one. There's those special connection ones that only she can feel," Kyle Busch says.
Kyle's reaction is not quite so emotional as his wife's, he admits with a laugh. "Dads are certainly different. There might be another dad that has the same problem I do. 'Look, dude: Sorry. I'm with you, bro.'"
When the Sullivans couldn't get pregnant, Brendan did not want to be tested because he didn't want to know if something was wrong with him. But if he didn't take the test, they couldn't move forward with treatment. "We had lots of strong conversations -- I won't call it arguments, but that's probably a better word for it," Jenn says. "I was like, 'What do you mean you won't get tested?'"
Brendan finally relented. He "passed" the test, which meant the "problem" was with Jenn. Doctors never pinpointed what the issue was, characterizing it as "unexplained." "I hate to say that it was a relief for me," he says. "But it really was. It probably killed [Jenn]. But as a man, that's the one thing you're supposed to provide for your wife. And if you can't do that, then, what are you?"
The applications all contain intensely personal and intimate stories. At the heart of each one is this: The couples are having a ton of sex -- all the time, day after day, in some cases for years -- and feel like failures when nothing comes of it. That puts an incredible amount of stress on a marriage. It turns sex from the consummation of a marriage to a chore that seems to have been done improperly by one or the other or both.
Physical maladies beget psychological pain. Infertility can lead to strife and divorce. "It's a small crack that creates a big crater in the relationship," says Rainier Gil, executive director of REACH. "The key is that there are options. The lack of awareness of options is huge. People don't know where to turn."
Samantha delights in telling the families they will get money. But she despairs when she reads the applications, as the need outpaces Bundle of Joy's ability to give. That tension over deciding who gets grants will probably get worse, not better, as Bundle of Joy becomes more known. Applicants must be patients at REACH and residents of North Carolina. REACH sees roughly 100 new patients every month, so Gil expects Bundle of Joy to continue to see an increase in applications. According to the Mayo Clinic, up to 15 percent of couples are infertile. "The need is astronomical," Gil says.
The money can be used for a variety of treatments at REACH. So far, 17 couples have been awarded $187,500; the size of a grant is based on what a couple asks for in their application. Eight couples have had a total of 10 children, and another baby is due this month.
Bundle of Joy started with seed money from the Busches and now runs on donations and fundraisers. A helmet Kyle Busch wore at a race at Bristol Motor Speedway sold for $15,000. "That's a baby," was Samantha Busch's immediate reaction when she heard the amount. "We equate everything in babies." She has that money earmarked for a family whose chances of getting pregnant REACH considers slim. "It's a $15,000 bet I'm willing to take," she says. "There's something telling me, We have to choose them."
A fan for life
No Bundle of Joy applicants have ever proclaimed themselves to be fans of NASCAR or Kyle Busch, not even Brendan, even though Kyle Busch has been his favorite driver since he and Jenn moved to Charlotte in 2005, Kyle's rookie season.
Jenn's favorite driver used to be Carl Edwards. But his sudden retirement over the winter has pushed her toward Martin Truex Jr. Jenn's reaction to Kyle before all of this was fairly typical of the anti-Busch crowd: She didn't like him. The traits Kyle Busch's fans love about him are the same ones that drive his detractors nuts -- he drives hard all the time, doesn't care who he upsets and speaks his mind, no matter the consequences.
But when Jenn was being interviewed by Bundle of Joy, she overheard him speaking in another room to a group of elementary school students, and she was amazed by how gracious he was to them. He didn't sound anything like the Kyle Busch who gets mouthy on TV.
Her husband needed no such reason to like him. "He definitely has my personality," Brendan says. "I like to see younger guys come up and succeed. It's good to see the underdog come out and not take any crap."
Bundle of Joy grants are awarded twice a year -- once in May around Brexton's birthday and again around Christmas. In November 2015, Kyle Busch won what is now known as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup championship. His responsibilities after that -- go here, do this, talk to this group, etc. -- delayed the Christmas-time awarding of Bundle of Joy grants that year because he and Samantha did not have sufficient time to review the applications. As a result, the Sullivans found out later than they otherwise would've that they had been awarded the grant, and therefore Carson was born later than he maybe otherwise would've been.
Is Brendan OK with that -- does he consider it a fair deal that in exchange for his driver's first championship he had to wait a few more weeks for his son to be born? Carson squirmed in his arms as his dad considered this question. He smiled. "I plead the fifth," he said.
From becoming a mother to first Mother's Day
REACH tells patients not to take store-bought pregnancy tests before their blood tests because the results are unreliable. Both the Busches and the Sullivans ignored that advice. After being awarded the Bundle of Joy grant and going through her third round of IVF, Jenn snuck downstairs early one morning -- just one day before her blood test -- and took a store-bought test. When the double lines showed she was pregnant, she took a picture of the stick, texted it to a friend (who also was an IVF patient) and asked, "Does this say what I think it says?"
Jenn didn't want to tell Brendan yet, though. He was still asleep, and she didn't want to him to be drowsy for such a big moment. She went to work and tried to act as normal as possible even though she thought she was pregnant. At lunch, she drove to Target and bought a card that said, "Dad to be," as well as a digital pregnancy test, that, after she took it, positively screamed with a "pregnant" read out.
She presented both to Brendan that night. "As soon as he pulled out the card, he started crying," she says. "We got to celebrate a little that night. We went to REACH the next day. They asked if we had taken a test and I said, 'Yep. Sure did. S-u-u-u-ure did.'"
In retrospect, Jenn wishes she had enjoyed the pregnancy more. But she was soaked with anxiety throughout, terrified that every little thing signaled disaster, though she now says she had a fairly normal pregnancy.
The big day finally came. As doctors prepared to give Jenn an epidural, Brendan passed out and crashed to the floor. A nurse first tried to catch him and then tried to pick him up, both of which were unsuccessful because he weighs about 230 pounds, and she was maybe half that. But soon enough, Brendan was up, Carson was out and all was well.
But not necessarily normal. It was almost too much to process. After all those years of hoping for him, crying for him, yearning for him, here he was, a pink, crying, thirsty little boy, his soft skin resting gently against his mom's. "I think I cried for an hour straight. Not like boo-hooing cry, but just tears," Jenn says. "But at the same time, you go back to finding this so hard to believe. All I could think of was, 'Really, is this a live child?'"
He's real all right, as in real hungry, all the time. By the looks of him, Carson has done little but eat since that day. Jenn and Brendan's lives have been turned upside down, of course, in the best possible way. "We feel complete," Jenn says.
Which is not to say there haven't been changes in the Sullivan household. For example, Brendan has been forced to learn to use less colorful language when he's watching NASCAR or North Carolina sports on TV.
Jenn Sullivan will spend her first Mother's Day as a mother away from home. On Sunday, she will be at the University of North Carolina to attend graduation for the niece she helped raise. Sunday also happens to be the anniversary of the death of Brendan's brother. "I think it's going to be an incredibly emotional day," she says.