Touching A Mom's Heart

"Shoot For Seamus" provides families with photographs of newborns in intensive care units

Courtnye Lynch pictured with her daughter, Collins, who was born premature on March 3. Collins is in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit at St. Louis Children's Hospital. She weighed one pound at birth, and her weight is now up over three pounds. On April 23, seven volunteer photographers took pictures of more than 60 babies in one day at the unit. The photographs are presented to families in an annual event known as "Shoot for Seamus." Seamus died April 23, 2009, having lived only seven and a half weeks. His parents are Sharon and Tom Johnston of Kirkwood. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
May 09, 2014
Thomas Seamus Johnston lived only seven and a half weeks, but he left a legacy that continues to touch people.

Like most first-time parents, Kirkwood residents Sharon and Tom Johnston eagerly anticipated Seamus' birth, but a health condition caused Sharon to go into premature labor. On March 1, 2009, Seamus was born at 25 weeks, weighing a mere 1.9 pounds.

For seven and a half weeks, the baby was cared for in the St. Louis Children's Hospital Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU). On April 23, 2009, he died.

Photographer Jodie Allen, owner of Fresh Art Photography, volunteers for Children's Hospital doing bereavement photography for NICU families. When the Johnstons were made aware of Seamus' diminishing condition, they were introduced to Allen.

"I'm on a list of photographers to come down when a baby isn't doing well," Allen said. "I took the call, and since I'm a Kirkwood kid too, Sharon, Tom and I connected right away."

"Jodie came the day before Seamus passed," Sharon Johnston said. "We wanted him to see the sky, to feel fresh air and a little bit of a breeze. We took him to the rooftop garden and the grandparents, cousins and friends were here, along with Seamus' caregivers from the NICU. We knew Seamus would pass the next day, so we had Jodie come back and take pictures."

Shoot for Seamus

Instead of marking the day of Seamus' death with sadness, the Johnstons and Allen began "Shoot for Seamus," an annual event that provides portraits of every baby in the NICU at no cost to the family.

The idea for the event came from Allen and her former partner, Kim Weiss.

New mom Amanda Hefner holds her son, Jayce Skobel, as photographers Kim Weiss, center, and Jodie Allen prepare to take their photo. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
"They were struggling," Allen said of the Johnstons. "March 1 comes and it's Seamus' birthday, then after that it's the day of his passing, so it was a hard year for them and their family. So Kim and I came up with an idea of making the day special and a day that they could eventually look forward to."

Every year on April 23, the Johnstons returned to the NICU where Allen and Weiss would photograph babies and their families. During the last five years, Allen has photographed approximately 50 families.

This past April 23 was the fifth annual "Shoot for Seamus" event at Children's Hospital. Allen, along with six other photographers who volunteered their time, walked through the NICU. They snapped photos of tiny bundles of joy in the arms of their anxious, but proud, parents.

"We wanted to do something significant to commemorate the fifth anniversary of 'Shoot for Seamus,'" Allen said. "This year, we had seven photographers and we photographed every baby in the NICU more than 60 babies in one day."

For a little while, the NICU's atmosphere was transformed into a celebration with clicking cameras and smiling families wearing green "Shoot for Seamus" T-shirts.

Doing what Allen does takes a special talent.

"I think God called me to this," she said. "There are lots of ways photographers can give back, like donating sessions to school auctions. But I had people who were trusting me with their family photos, and I felt that when God gives you a gift and you don't give back in a way that's hard and challenging, then you're just wasting that gift."

Remembering Seamus

When Sharon Johnston became pregnant again following Seamus' death, her husband said they both had concerns.

"But we discussed it and we wanted to be parents of children here on Earth," he said.

Sharon and Tom Johnston, parents of the late Thomas Seamus Johnston, pass out T-shirts and onesies at the April 23 "Shoot for Seamus" event. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
After Seamus' death, Tom Johnston said he read a book he "normally wouldn't read." That book was "Have A Little Faith" by Mitch Albom, and in it was a story about a rabbi who was dying.

"He was asked if he was afraid of dying," Tom Johnston said. "He said, 'No, I'm not afraid of dying. I'm afraid of dying the second death and that's the death of being forgotten.'

"So that's one of those stories ingrained in my brain and it has been a driving force in keeping Seamus' memory alive. This is what this event is about," Tom Johnston said. "You wish he could be here, but I also know the profound impact he has had on this world. What he accomplished in the seven and a half weeks he was here, most people won't accomplish in a lifetime."

The Johnstons now have two more boys, Mac, 3, and Grady, 1. By having pictures of Seamus around the house, these little boys know they have a brother who remains very much a part of their lives.

"Every night when we say our prayers, they remember Seamus," Sharon Johnston said.

"Every day all year long, she's Mac and Grady's mom," Allen said. "But today (April 23), she's Seamus' mom, and so many people are saying Seamus' name over and over, and they say it for weeks leading up to the event."

People in the NICU become very close because of all they share, and the Johnstons maintain this closeness.

"We always say that Seamus' best friends were here the doctors, nurses and staff these were the people who took care of him," Sharon Johnston said. "Even the housekeepers who came in and cleaned his room became part of our family. I was here all day and was fortunate to sleep here."

Besides the Johnston family and Fresh Art Photography, the "Shoot for Seamus" event is sponsored by St. Louis Children's Hospital, the March of Dimes Family Support and the NICU nursing staff.

Next year on April 23, Allen and the Johnstons will return to the NICU and work their magic in Seamus' memory.

For more information, contact Allen at

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