Wesley and Sarah Hendrickson of Brainerd are strong in their devotion to God.

The couple, both mental health professionals, met at University of Northwestern, a bible college in the Twin Cities. They both come from Christian backgrounds: Wesley as a Lutheran, Sarah as a Baptist. Now, they attend the Journey North Church in Baxter.

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So it was difficult to reconcile a key part of their identity-their faith-with tragedy. Their 3-month-old daughter, Della, was diagnosed earlier this month with infant botulism. It's an extremely rare disease caused by nerve toxins that gradually cause paralysis and can sometimes lead to death by respiratory failure. Of the roughly 319 million people living in America, on average about 145 people nationwide are diagnosed with various forms of botulism per year-and this year, Della was one of them.

"We have struggled quite a bit to understand why bad things like this happen," Wesley said.

But, he added, God's made the promise that he will never put more trials on someone than they can handle.

From 'fussy' to a fight for life

The Hendricksons first knew something was wrong when Della didn't eat or pass anything for 24 hours straight. She was "fussy and inconsolable," Wesley recalled.

Sarah called the family's team of pediatric nurses, and the recommendation was to take her into the emergency room. The ER visit lasted five hours, but the tests didn't reveal a problem, and she was discharged after being able to take down some fluid, and they planned a follow up the next morning.

But that night was the same as the night before, with not eating and no defecation. Della grew weaker and weaker, and the Hendricksons went to their pediatrician. After another hospital stay at Essentia Health-St. Joseph's Medical Center in Brainerd the next day, the Hendrickson family was airlifted to the St. Paul campus of Children's Hospitals and Clinics later that evening. One of the doctors there had coincidentally treated two cases of infant botulism in his career beforehand and recognized the symptoms.

The doctors called a facility in California and requested them to ship a single antitoxin dose to Minnesota. That dose alone cost more than $45,000-but Della's parents knew it could shorten her hospital stay from months to weeks.

After the dose was administered early March 13, the Hendricksons began to see a gradual improvement in Della's condition-a breathing tube taken out one day, her ability to smile coming back another. Eventually, they moved out of the intensive care unit, to a regular hospital wing, and since then they've been working with rehabilitative therapists to improve Della's functions.

Doctors project that Della will make a full recovery with no limitations, Wesley said. They might be able go home as soon as Saturday.

Her experience with botulism is not the first time the family has dealt with severe illness in their children. The Hendricksons also have 3 1/2-year-old twins, one of which went through a six-hour surgery to repair a tear in his diaphragm. Everything turned out OK, Wesley said, but having two of their kids suffer in different incidents was trying. It was a conflict that rages in many faithful when faced with unusual amounts of adversity: a temptation to feel frustrated with God for placing your family in that position, but also turning to him as a refuge.

However, about halfway through Della's ordeal, a feeling of contentment came over the couple. They felt grateful for the doctors, for helping to make their child better. And they felt grateful for "more support than we could possibly need or imagine" Wesley said-the support of God.

The way Sarah put it, she struggled with the unknown, but she also knew everything was "taken care of"-- that is, by God-regardless of the outcome.

The couple prayed for answers to the unknown, when doctors couldn't tell them what was wrong. They also prayed for the least amount of pain possible for Della, Wesley said.

There are still elements that remain uncertain.

They can't pin down a source for the spores. It could have been from neighbors clearing debris from the July 12 storm-or it could have been construction, or logging.

The Hendricksons aren't sure exactly when Della will be discharged, or when she'll fully regain her strength. Sarah was overwhelmed and surprised at the pace of Della's improvement. Wesley said he's taken care to manage his expectations, to temper his joy at watching his daughter get better.

"I didn't want to get too excited, to get the point where I'd be disappointed if there was any slowdown in her progress, or if there were any steps backwards," he said. "But we haven't seen any of that."

The community rallies

Relatives have set up a GoFundMe account for the Hendricksons, to which 75 people have contributed more than $5,000 so far. Wesley said one of the memories the family will hold onto from the experience is the support they've received from people through the page-be they friends or complete strangers. Sarah was struck by the unique opportunity to experience a display of humanity shining through, via thoughts, food, money, prayers, visits.

"How God works through others, and the generosity of people, is just mind-blowing," Wesley said.

Visit www.gofundme.com/pru8g9bt to see the page and contribute.

SIDEBAR: About botulism

Botulism in Minnesota is extremely rare, according to the state Department of Health.

Tory Whitten, an MDH epidemiologist (disease expert), said there's about one case of infant botulism per year in the state, with some years seeing no cases at all.

Adults can only get botulism either from contaminated food or through "wound botulism" from sources like dirty needles.

Infants can contract botulism through spores because their digestive systems produce less acid than adults-acid which would otherwise kill the toxin-producing botulism bacteria.

So far in 2016, Della has been one of two total cases of infant botulism. The other case was an infant in the metro area, Whitten said.

Botulism can sometimes be contracted when infants eat contaminated honey, Whitten said-but other than avoiding honey, there's really no way to prevent babies from ingesting botulism. The vast array of possible spore sources makes it frustrating when talking to parents who want to know how their baby got the disease, she said, because it's impossible to give them a specific source.

Symptoms of botulism can be difficult to spot in the early stages-the baby might simply be more fussy, Whitten said, and they may not be able to suck as well. However, as the disease progresses, the infant will become constipated. Then, a weakness or paralysis will take hold, from the head, progressing downwards. The baby's eyelids may droop, and its cry will become weaker, she said. Facial muscles won't work as well. Anyone who suspects their infant may have botulism, should contact their health care provider.

ZACH KAYSER may be reached at 218-855-5860 or Zach.Kayser@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ZWKayser.