EVANSTON, Ill. — Shannique Shelton recalls a moment from 15 years ago as if it happened 15 seconds ago.

The Chicago teaching assistant was pregnant and had just completed her first ultrasound when the doctor abruptly left the room.

When he returned, he had the image, and several concerns.

“He goes, ‘Ms. Shelton?’ I said, ‘yes?’ He said, ‘Your child has gastroschisis.’ I said ‘Gastroschisis? What is that?,” she said.   

Gastroschisis is a condition that results from a tear in the abdominal wall, pushing a baby’s intestines to the outside of the body.  

“That’s a condition that’s pretty rare, and you’re born with your intestines outside of your stomach, so everything is kind of spilling out,” Dr. Elaine Chiu of La Rabida Children’s Hospital said. “It’s pretty serious.” 

Shelton had a cesarean section, and her son Enijel was born several weeks premature. Enijel weighed less than five pounds and was immediately placed into the neonatal intensive care unit at the University of Chicago Medicine’s Comer Children’s Hospital.

“I had friends and family bringing him balloons and flowers and congratulating me on the new bundle of joy, but it just didn’t feel like joy at the time, because where was my bundle of joy? He was in the NICU fighting for his life,” she said.

Doctors used a silo bag, a sort of pouch for the intestines that is hung over the body, using gravity to push the organs back into the body. 

Once that process was complete, about two months later, Enijel had a delicate surgery to close his midsection.  

“I prayed, like, God please, allow my baby to get through this surgery,” Shelton said. “Bless the hands of each doctor, each surgeon.” 

The surgery was successful, but the challenges were only starting. Babies who experience gastroschisis, often have trouble digesting and absorbing nutrients properly, which can have a long-term impact on growth and brain development.

“He didn’t talk until he was one year old,” she said. “It was delayed development because of this.” 

His health team at La Rabida connected him with occupational, developmental, and speech therapists.

“LaRabida is very special,” Chiu said. “We see a lot of kids with chronic illnesses, complexities and special health care needs. We have a very diverse staff here and they specialize in different things which is good because our kids need different support in different aspects of their health – not just medical needs, but nutritional support, mental health support, care coordination support, and we have all of that here in one site.” 

At times, schoolwork was difficult.

“It was tough when I was that age,” Enijel said. “It’s been difficult, but at the same time, I don’t think too much about it.”  

Enijel struggled in the classroom for a while, but excelled in sports, and begged his mom to play football. 

“She allowed it but just told me I had to be careful,” he said.   

Now, he’s playing football at Evanston Township High School for the sophomore football team. “My mom worries about it the most, because if I get hit too hard anything can happen.” 

“Sometimes I still hold my breath that causes me not to shout out,” Shannique said. “So, when he’s running or he’s going all can say is go, go, don’t fall.” 

Enijel’s coach said he’s thriving as a leader of the team.

“It speaks to his ability to overcome challenges – whether it be obviously the challenges presented at birth, but also just the challenges presented on the football field, which seems very much natural to his development as a young person,” Alex Brown, the ETHS sophomore football coach, said.

On a recent evening, Enijel was flipping through a phot book and saw himself as an infant with a feeding tube.

“I came a long way,” he said.