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In times of hardship and tragedy, York countians band together and support one another.

Gwen Summers, a reading specialist in Southern York County School District, has been on a roller coaster for nearly two years, a time she said she would have barely struggled through if not for her neighbors, co-workers and Advent Lutheran Church community.

Gwen Summers said she and her husband, Kirk, were overjoyed when they found out they were to have twins, though she had more concerns on her plate than most first-time mothers-to-be: Kirk had been diagnosed with liver disease more than a year earlier and needed a transplant.

"Of course we were super excited," Gwen said. "I mean I was a little scared and worried because of Kirk's health, but at that point we had no idea what the road ahead was going to be like, that it was going to be as challenging as it has been."

But he was excited.

"He wanted to be Mr. Mom, you know? His job allowed him to work from home, and he had the names picked out by the end of the summer."

M&M: As Summers' pregnancy progressed, Kirk's health seemed to decline.

"It got chronically worse last summer," Gwen said. "His liver wasn't functioning and his stomach was filling with fluid. His health really deteriorated."

In spite of the health issues, he was able to be by her side when the twins were born in November, two months early.

The tiny duo, Marcus and Maria — lovingly dubbed M&M by friends and family — they barely weighed 3 pounds each and spent their first few weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit.

Shortly after M&M got home, Kirk's health took a downhill turn. He was taken to Hershey Medical Center, where he would wait for a liver.

Liver: The first liver came, but it was too damaged to be viable. A second became available, but it couldn't be transported because of weather conditions, Gwen said.

"The third liver did arrive just in time because Kirk couldn't fight and hold on much longer. His body was starting to shut down," she said. "We kept telling ourselves: Third time's a charm."

And it was, at first.

Her husband's body seemed to be accepting the liver; he was slowly improving until a week later, when he slipped into a coma.

"He was comatose for about two weeks," Gwen said. "He couldn't talk or anything. We think it was his anti-rejection medicine ... but he came out of the coma and just started talking."

An MRI showed Kirk had damage to his brain stem caused by the drugs, a very rare outcome, the doctors told Gwen.

"We're getting there," she added during an interview in June. "Kirk is making his baby steps. It's such a unique case. There's really only 12 other recorded cases like it."

Kirk was moved from his room at Hershey to a long-term care facility where he started to show improvement, and he's now at a nursing care facility in Harrisburg.

"I'm just so thankful we can talk, because not being able to talk since January was terribly hard," Gwen said. "We weren't able to have a real conversation for seven months.

"Each week I start to see a little more of the good ole Kirk come back to me — a smile, a kiss on the hand, a sweet look in his eye that is no longer just a blank stare, but he's really focusing on what I am saying to him."

Help: Nancy Dellinger, a member of Advent Lutheran, spearheaded a committee of volunteers to help baby-sit the twins while Gwen worked at school, where she helps students develop their reading skills.

"We knew Gwen would need help with the babies, especially after she had to return to teaching," Dellinger said. "Church members were asked to sign up if they wanted to help. It was a trial and error process coordinating volunteers. It takes more than a village. It takes faith."

Members of the congregation took shifts baby-sitting while Gwen continued to work to provide for her family.

"Knowing that I had these sitters took away so much worry," she said. "Knowing that someone was actually there and that I wouldn't have to worry about bringing the kids somewhere was a huge relief."

The church's maintenance staff also lent a hand.

"Kirk was a handyman, so I never had to ask anybody for help," she said. "Asking people for help is a very hard thing, but those guys came in and did a lot of things for me."

Gwen also took comfort in her work days, a welcome distraction from the struggles her family was enduring.

"Their support was overwhelming," Gwen said of her co-workers. "They were willing to let me come and go when I needed to. They were just phenomenal, the whole district. We call it our friendship family, and it truly is a family."

Gwen also felt love from her neighbors, who provided home-cooked meals and baby supplies.

"Sometimes I would come home and just find diapers sitting on my doorstep," she said.

Gwen found it difficult to put her gratitude in words.

"I really can't say enough about it," she said. "If I need something, I know I can call on my church people and of course I call on my mom; she stays the night, goes home, showers and then comes right back. They've been a sustaining force for me. God has pulled all our people together, and I couldn't be more thankful."

Those who wish to support the Summers family can do so through their account on gofundme.com or bring physical donations to Advent Lutheran Church at 1775 E. Market St.

— Reach Jessica Schladebeck at jschladebeck@yorkdispatch.com.

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