Couple Grieving Loss of 4-year-old Child Thankful for Creighton Community’s Support
Ryan and Tiffany Walters pose for a photo with their daughter, Nora, while visiting family in Minnesota. Pictured is son, Dominik, who died Aug. 12, 2018 at the age of 4 after sustaining massive cardiac arrest.
Little Nora Walters, just 20 months into her earthly existence, points excitedly at the children’s characters dancing merrily on a computer screen. She does not know, but some day will, that she once had a 4-year-old brother who dubbed her “Boon,” loved words, skyscrapers and dwarf planets, always carried miniature cars, made up stories about everything, entertained an invisible friend named Dylan, and, above all, loved playgrounds and parks.
She will know because her mom and dad will make sure of it, but also because, if their efforts are successful, the memory of Dominik Eugene Walters will be forever preserved at Dom’s Park, an existing though faded children’s playground at Wehrspann Lake in western Sarpy County that they hope to rejuvenate.
Ryan Walters, PhD, a statistician and assistant professor at the Creighton University School of Medicine, and his wife, Tiffany, hope to raise $192,000 to fund the project in memory of their son.
Dominik died on Aug. 12, 2018, two weeks after suffering massive cardiac arrest while vacationing with his parents at his maternal grandmother’s lakeside cabin near St. James, Minnesota. He had been leaping from a dock into his father’s arms, when on the fifth leap he appeared to seize, went completely limp and lost all muscle tone. His mother, who once worked in a hospital where she learned life-saving techniques, applied CPR until individuals from a nearby cabin rushed to her aid. Dominik was eventually flown by emergency helicopter to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where four days later brain death was diagnosed. Ten days later, he died in hospice.
The cause of Dominik’s cardiac arrest — a fully healthy child — remains a mystery.
“Not a day goes by I wouldn’t trade places with him,” says Walters.
The impact of such a titanic bereavement might have proved overwhelming, he says, if not for numerous acts of kindness and support from colleagues at the School of Medicine and from fellow members of Rejoice! Lutheran Church in Omaha.
Nothing moves him to tears more, Walters says, than when he recalls the generous response from Creighton colleagues and church members, ranging from assuming his considerable workload to donating to the playground project.
“I know there’s a lot of variability from workplace to workplace, but I don’t think I would have received the same type of support had I not been working here,” he says. “The physicians who reached out, the students. That’s what chokes me up the most.”
Tiffany says her church community also has been instrumental.
“When human compassion and kindness shine through, it’s so helpful in getting you through. It restores your faith,” she says.
The couple settled on a park memorial because parks and playgrounds were the greatest of Dominik’s many enthusiasms. They settled on Wehrspann Lake because the Papio NRD will permit the park to be named for their son.
The intention, Tiffany says, is to preserve the memory of their son while bringing joy to generations of children well into the future. And, along the way, relieve their greatest fear.
“Our biggest fear is forgetting,” says Walters. “We’re never going to forget that we had a 4-year-old. We’re never going to forget that Dominik existed. But the little details, the day-to-day minutiae-type things. We’re so scared that it’s going to just decay and be lost.”
That, Tiffany says, is why it means so much when people speak to them of their son.
“Those little anecdotes from people about Dom, maybe from people who met him just one time and saw him once, that they remembered that and shared it with us, is like breathing life into him.”
Walters says Dominik’s death has changed him as a teacher, enhancing his desire to show to his Creighton students the same degree of engagement his son showed to all who knew him.
“When we talk to people about Dominik, they never talk about what Dom did for himself,” Walters says. “They always talk about what he did for them. If I was feeling bad, he’d give me a hug. If my daughter was feeling left out, he would try to bring her in.
“Since he died, I have focused much less on myself and focused my empathy toward students, developed my desire to make sure that they get what they need. I would do anything for them.
“I do that in memory of Dom.”
The Midlands Community Foundation, the largest philanthropic organization in Sarpy County, has established the Dominik Walters Memorial Fund, a designated fund that permits donations to be tax deductible.
Contributions made at dominikwalters.com, a website that explains the playground project in depth, will be placed in that fund.