From Atheist to Catholic

For 30 years, I was an atheist. I thought Christians were fanatical extremists. My soul was so dark, I couldn’t understand why some people objected to abortion and euthanasia. I had never heard of the Culture of Death, although I was drowning in it.

I have only one childhood memory of attending church. When I was a child of seven, my sister Linda and I held my mother’s hand and walked into St. James Episcopal Church in Jackson, Mississippi. I don’t remember what the church looked like or anything about the service, because I was too busy admiring my shiny, black shoes.

Soon afterward, I overheard my mother and father arguing about God. My father said, “I forbid you to take the kids to church anymore.”

My mother said, “They need to learn about God.”

“There is no God,” he said.

Mother said, “Yes, there is a God.”

“There is no God,” my father shouted, “And if you take the kids to church, I will teach them to be atheists.”

From that moment on, there was no talk of God in our home. We did not go to church. We never prayed. Christmas was about Santa, not Jesus. I barely knew the story of the Christ child. The only time I ever looked at a children’s Bible was in the waiting room of my doctor’s office. As a child, I sometimes prayed to “Dear God or Jesus or whoever you are.” But soon I stopped this practice, no longer believing a Creator existed.

The Closed Door of My Soul

For thirty years, I did not attend church, except for a short time as a teenager, when I sang in a Presbyterian choir. Singing about the “good news” of Christ’s birth, the words were hollow and meaningless to me. Church was boring and the rituals empty.

When my high-school friend Kathy, an Irish Catholic, railed about the evils of abortion, I was clueless. I truly believed a person did not become human until the moment of birth. I remember saying, “It wouldn’t have mattered if I had been aborted, because my soul would have jumped into another body.” A vague belief in reincarnation hovered at the edges of my darkened mind.

Because I love history, I majored in ancient Greek, Roman, and medieval history in college. One day, I asked my Jewish professor of Roman history, “Did Jesus really live or was He a myth?” He answered, “Yes, Jesus really lived; there’s no doubt about it. Why don’t you read the Gospel of Matthew?” I did, but the Word of God fell on the closed door of my soul.

Another Jewish professor instructed me well in medieval history, otherwise known as the history of the Catholic Church. The historical significance of the Catholic Church as the original Christian church impressed me deeply. I once remarked, “Well, if I ever were to become a Christian, I probably would become Catholic.”

After graduating, my dabbling into the history of Christianity ceased. I became antagonistic to Christianity, refusing to let my Catholic husband hang a crucifix on our wall. I felt disdain for those who believed in God. I grew up to be a bitter, angry woman, always quick to judge others.

The Door Opens a Crack

My journey towards Christianity took two years, beginning in November 1995. It started, oddly enough, when I heard Charles Sykes, author of Dumbing Down Our Kids, explain why many kids can’t read or spell. He recommended reading Why Johnny Can’t Read by Rudolph Flesch.

Until reading this book, it never entered my mind that some people guess at new words and don’t know how to sound them out. Now I learned that most American public schools stopped teaching phonics (the 44 sounds in the English language and the 70 common ways to spell those sounds) back in the 1920’s and that millions of kids have been taught to memorize whole words rather than sound them out.

Determined that my children would be good readers, I began teaching phonics to Rebecca, then five, and Kevin, then three. Sure enough, within six weeks, they were reading. Now I was convinced of one truth—that phonics knowledge is essential to reading—and slowly, my mind opened to the possibility that there might be other “truths” out there.

I met many Christians in the education reform movement. Most of their words of faith fell on deaf ears. But a few words slipped through my defenses, especially those of Bob Sweet, founder of The National Right to Read Foundation, a pro-phonics organization. First through his actions and later with words, Bob planted the seeds of faith in me.

The first big step in my Christian walk came when my husband Tom and I enrolled our children in a phonics-based school in September 1996. The only phonics-based school we could afford was a Protestant Christian school. We were both worried our kids might become “religious fanatics,” so I carefully studied the Christian curriculum used at the school and was relieved to discover the textbooks were factual and rigorous.

The decision to enroll Rebecca and Kevin in a Christian school was significant, because as they learned about the Bible, so did I. My sister Pamela, a Christian for seven years, gave them an illustrated Beginner’s Bible, which I read cover to cover. I’m embarrassed to say most of the stories were new to me. My sister also gave me the classic Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, which was the book that convinced me that God exists.

For many months in 1997, I felt pulled towards church but I resisted. My husband and children were already attending Catholic Church each Sunday, but I stayed home. I liked sleeping late on Sunday mornings. And I did not like church, so I thought.

On Sunday, October 6th, 1997, I stopped vacillating. At the time, our children attended a Protestant Christian school, so I decided to try the evangelical Protestant church attached to the school. For the first time in my life, I felt something spiritual and uplifting while in church. The pastor’s powerful sermons and music inspired me.

The Door Flung Wide

I started reading the Bible as a historical document. As a student of ancient and medieval history, I felt the story presented in the four Gospels was compelling. What a revelation for me to read the Gospel of John, especially when Jesus says to Doubting Thomas: “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by me. If you had known me, you would know my Father also; henceforth you know him and have seen him” (John 14:6). As soon as I read these words, I wrote them down and memorized them. Now I saw the Bible is not just a historical document, but also the word of God. After reading the rest of the Gospel of John, I said to myself, “Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”

But thirty years of atheism were hard to shake off. I was beginning to know God through the study of the Bible, but I did not love him and I certainly did not serve him. I was clinging to a ledge, afraid to let go. I wanted to surrender to God and His will, but I didn’t know how. I needed faith; I had heard the word, but I had never experienced it. One night, after hours of Bible study with my sister Pamela, I lay in the dark and prayed for the first time in thirty years, “Lord, send me faith. I want to believe in you.” I opened the door and God poured faith into my yearning heart. As Jesus promises us, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). Faith was God’s merciful gift to me. Without faith, how could I believe in things not seen?

For about six months, I attended the Protestant church attached to my children’s school. One Sunday, as I sat in Bible study class, my teacher began disparaging the use of commentaries, claiming the Holy Spirit reveals the true meaning of each Bible passage to each individual. I said, “Each person says the Holy Spirit tells him what a particular passage means, yet each interpretation is different. Who is right? They can’t all be right, since the Holy Spirit is God and God cannot contradict himself. Certainly in 2000 years of Christianity, others have already correctly interpreted the Bible. Why don’t we look at what St. Augustine has to say?”

My teacher responded, “St. Augustine is a little too Catholic for me.” These words revealed the anti-Catholic, anti-historical bias pervading his thinking. He thought he could discover some truth about the Christian faith that others had not already discovered centuries ago. I knew I was no match for the magnificent theologians—St. Augustine and so many others—who had spent 2000 years refining the Christian faith.

On This Rock

A Catholic friend, Janet, loaned me the book, Surprised by Truth, edited by Patrick Madrid, which describes the conversion stories of many who asked the same question as I: Who has the authority to interpret the Bible? The answer came in the words of Jesus as He gives His disciple Simon a new name:

“And I tell you, you are Peter and on this rock, I will build my church, and the powers of Death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:18 – 16:19).

The new name Jesus chose for Simon means “Rock.” The word “Rock” is “Cephas” in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. When the New Testament was written, “Cephas” was translated into Greek as “Petros,” which was later translated into English as “Peter.” So what Jesus said to Simon is, “I tell you that you are Rock and on this rock, I will build my church….” Jesus here is speaking about one church, not many churches.

In ancient times, a king handed keys to his prime minister to show he was giving authority to that minister over all others. When Jesus handed the keys to Peter, He gave authority to Peter, the first Bishop of Rome, over all other Christians. When Jesus gave Peter the power to “bind and loose,” He gave Peter the authority to make binding decisions.

Only one church has existed since Jesus spoke those prophetic words to Peter in the Gospel of Matthew: the Catholic (which means “universal”) Christian Church, with the Bishop of Rome, also known as the Pope, at its head. All other Christian denominations are splinters of the original Catholic Church, or are splinters of splinters. None of these denominations recognize the Bishop of Rome as its head. Once I realized Jesus made Peter (and his successors) the earthly head of His Church, I said to my husband, “I may have to become Catholic.”

I immersed myself in Catholic apologetics and theology. I listened to Scott Hahn’s tape series, Our Father’s Plan; listened to Father John Corapi’s catechism series, The Teaching of Jesus Christ; and read Karl Keating’s book, Catholicism and Fundamentalism. On Easter day 1998, we attended Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. During the processional, tears came to my eyes as I watched the priest swing the censer, for I remembered our prayers are like incense wafting up to Heaven. As we sang the glorious hymn Jesus Christ is Risen Today, love for God filled my heart until it hurt. For the first time, I understood what was happening during Mass. The Mass is not just a Protestant service with priests; the Mass is the hour during which Jesus Christ becomes present on the holy altar—body, blood, soul, and divinity—under the appearance of bread and wine.

I Was Blind, But Now I See

Each morning I opened my eyes, saying to myself, “This is the day that the Lord has made, let me rejoice and be glad in it.” Through study, I was beginning to know God; through the Mass, I was beginning to love God. Now I wanted to serve God by keeping His commandments. As the scales fell from St. Paul’s eyes, so the scales fell from my eyes. I saw how corrupt my life was in the light of the 10 Commandments. I began a massive purge of music, videos, TV shows, and books that glorified stealing, lying, adultery, fornication, homosexuality, masturbation, secular humanism, and atheism. I enjoyed throwing away offensive items, especially music by the rock singer Madonna, whose song Like a Virgin is one of the most offensive ever recorded.

In the seemingly innocuous Disney video Aladdin, I noticed the hero is an unrepentant thief who lies; the heroine Jasmine is a rebellious teenager who disobeys her father and runs away. In the subversive Disney video Hercules, the heroine Megara works for Hades, the Greek god of the underworld, lying and tricking Hercules repeatedly. Why had I ever exposed my dear children to these twisted messages?

The immorality of most TV shows hit me like a sledgehammer. I stopped watching Seinfeld not long after viewing the notorious episode that revolved around which character could go longest without masturbating. I noticed other TV shows slyly using humor to desensitize viewers to the immorality of homosexuality. Nature shows I used to enjoy now assaulted me with blatant humanist messages: humans evolved from sea slime without the need for a Creator; humans have no right to intrude into the pristine world of animals. I set my TV to Mother Angelica’s EWTN Global Catholic Network in 1998 and generally stopped watching secular TV.

Any book I would not want a nine-year-old to read had to go. That included most modern romances, science fiction, and detective novels. But surprisingly, it also included a well-known set of history books by historian Will Durant. A friend had warned me Will Durant was an atheist; this became obvious when I read the chapter on the life of Jesus Christ in his book Caesar and Christ. Yet even an atheist like Will Durant observed that no event has had a greater effect on millions of people than the life of Jesus Christ. I vowed not to read history written by atheists. I saw history as His story for the first time.

Faith Precedes Understanding

After purging my possessions, I turned to the much harder job of purging my attitudes and habits. My sister Pamela loaned me a pro-life video showing babies in the womb—alive, kicking, and sucking their thumbs. When the tattered remains of an aborted baby flashed across the screen, I knew abortion was murder. But I still wondered why women who are raped or who are victims of incest must bear children conceived in those circumstances. But God spoke through the Catholic Church and taught me that no child may be aborted, whether conceived by force or not. After I accepted that life begins at conception, it followed that each soul belongs to only one body; hence, there can be no reincarnation.

The moral teaching I found hardest to accept was the prohibition against contraception. I read the Bible passage describing the sin of Onan, who spilled his seed on the ground rather than risk impregnating Tamar. God punished Onan with death. I was surprised to discover that before 1930, all Christian denominations universally understood this passage to condemn all forms of contraception, from withdrawal to barrier methods such as condoms. In 1930, at the Lambeth conference in England, the Anglican church was the first denomination to allow contraception within marriage. In the decades to follow, every other mainstream denomination followed suit—all except the Catholic Church.

I found myself wondering why the Catholic Church alone stood firm against birth control. What could be wrong with it? Then my husband Tom loaned me the Feminism and Femininity tape series by Catholic writer and professor Alice von Hildebrand. For the first time, I heard a powerful argument against birth control and discovered Pope Paul VI had prophesied in Humanae Vitae that birth control would lead to widespread sexual immorality, the acceptance of abortion, and the decay of the family.

Realizing what could happen if we accepted this teaching, I said to my husband, “I don’t want twelve children.” I was completely closed to life—I didn’t want even one more child (two were enough, I thought). I was afraid and didn’t understand why birth control was wrong, yet I wanted to submit to God’s will. Faith precedes understanding, as the saying goes. At age 37, I stopped using birth control in July 1998. Grateful that God did not convert me in my 20’s, I calculated that six was the maximum number of children I might end up with (assuming the “worst-case scenario” of having a baby every other year until I was too old). The months passed, however, and I did not become pregnant. As my youngest child began school, I began to yearn for another baby or two or three. I felt the irony of the situation, since God was not giving me what I now wanted.

God is Not a She

Excited about becoming a Catholic Christian, I enrolled in catechism classes at our Northern Virginia parish in 1998. The first day of class, I got a shock when the Religious Education director said we can refer to God as she and the Church as he. “But,” I said, “Jesus told us to pray to our Father, so we should refer to God as he. Since Jesus is a man and the Church is the bride of Christ, the Church should be referred to as she.” The Religious Education director reprimanded me for being intolerant.

I soon discovered many in the Catholic Church, including catechists and priests, don’t know the core teachings or they don’t believe them. I was desperate for traditional Catholic teaching, but I didn’t know where to turn. In June 1998, Dick Black, a member of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia, invited my family to a Latin Mass. As the priest chanted the prayers, I felt connected in a powerful way to the ancient Catholic Church, to the Mass of twenty centuries. After attending services at St. Catherine’s for a month, we asked for and received permission to switch to that parish. I continued instruction at St. Catherine’s under the guidance of Father Franklyn McAfee and Father Richard Guest, priests who teach the truth of Roman Catholicism.

After two years of studying early Church history and the Bible, I was convinced that the Roman Catholic Church contains the full truth of Christianity and that Jesus Christ gave authority to Peter as the first Bishop of Rome. On the vigil of Easter, April 3, 1999, I was joyously received into the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.

Written: December 2001
Revised: November 2012

 

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How Teresa Benedicta Came to Be

Teresa, age 9, 1st Holy Communion Day
Teresa, age 9, 1st Holy Communion Day

Several months after discarding my contraceptive mentality, I visited a doctor in October 1998 to find out the cause of my infertility, but he could not pinpoint the cause. In January 2000, I had a graphic nightmare in which I miscarried a baby. The dream spurred me to seek advice from Father Robert Schreiner, who was visiting our parish from Minnesota. I told him I might be conceiving and miscarrying, although I was not sure. He said I was morally obligated to try to correct my infertility, if it could be corrected by medication or a procedure that was not too expensive.

In January 2000, I went to another doctor, Dr. O, who looked at my fertility charts and said I probably was ovulating. She diagnosed me with a pre-diabetic condition called PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome), which is related to high insulin levels. High insulin levels often cause infertility in women. She recommended additional tests and told me to adopt a high-protein, low-sugar diet. I eliminated sugar sodas and tried to eat more meat, but the rest of my diet remained essentially unchanged.

One night in May, I was praying in church in front of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. I thought about the Bible story of Hannah, who promised to consecrate her child to God if He granted her request for a son. God gave Hannah a son, Samuel, whom she later sent to the temple to be raised as a priest. Like Hannah, I asked for a child and promised to consecrate my child to God (as a priest or nun or whatever He wished) if He granted my request.

About two weeks later, Dr. O took a sample of my uterine lining to run some tests, never suspecting that I might be pregnant. She also started me on metformin, a diabetic medication also used to treat PCOS. Two days later, I discovered God had granted my request for a child. I had conceived the same week I made the consecration prayer. In His mercy, God let the child survive the disturbance to my uterus.

As soon as Dr. O discovered I was pregnant, she urged me to discontinue the diabetic medication, which was standard medical advice. But I had a feeling metformin was regulating my insulin levels and allowing me to maintain the pregnancy, so I did not discontinue the medication. While surfing the Internet, I discovered a web site maintained by a Cincinnati endocrinologist, Dr. Charles Glueck, who was sponsoring a study of women taking metformin during pregnancy. He told me that metformin did not cause birth defects and reduced the first trimester miscarriage rate from 50% to 8% among his patients with PCOS. Upon his advice, I increased my metformin dosage and entered the study.

God’s very special gift to our family, Teresa Benedicta, was born eighteen days early in 2001. Her name means “Blessed Teresa.” She is named after two Catholic saints: Teresa of Avila, Spain, a 16th-century Spanish nun whose birthplace I visited on pilgrimage in March 2000, and Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a Jewish philosopher who converted to Catholicism and became a Carmelite nun. Teresa Benedicta, whose birth name was Edith Stein, was killed by the Nazis during World War II in a concentration camp because of her Jewish heritage. I hope being named after these two holy women will inspire Teresa to stand firm in defense of the Catholic faith throughout her life.

~ Written  Dec. 2001, Revised Aug. 2012

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Thy Will Be Done: The Miracle of Ryan James

Father, if thou are willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done. (Luke 22:42)

As I entered the hospital delivery room in Fairfax, Virginia to deliver my fourth child, I said, “I’m offering all my suffering in this delivery for the conversion of a relative.” I knew that in some mysterious way God takes our suffering and uses it for good.

My obstetrician, Dr. John Bruchalski, responded, “Be careful what you pray for.”

I said, “Well, I didn’t ask God for extra suffering, just the regular amount.” The doctor later told me that he had a premonition that something catastrophic was going to happen during the delivery.

Ryan James was delivered by scheduled caesarean section in September 2002. Because of my deteriorating health due to diabetes and a heart condition, it became necessary to deliver the baby a few weeks early. Although he was pink and crying vigorously at birth, within one hour, he was gasping for breath. Although he was not premature at 37 weeks and weighed a reasonable 7 pounds, 7 ounces, his lungs were as underdeveloped as those of a 30-week premature baby, most likely because I am diabetic.

Dr. Alan Silk, neonatologist at Fair Oaks Hospital, put Ryan on oxygen—first delivered through a clear plastic helmet called an oxy-hood, later through nasal tubes. Ryan also received the first of three doses of surfactant. Surfactant is a detergent-like substance that helps inflate the air sacs of a newborn baby’s lungs; premature babies often lack surfactant, since it is manufactured only in the last weeks of pregnancy.

Ryan on oxygen soon after birth
Ryan on oxygen soon after birth

Ryan’s white blood cell count was low, which indicated an infection. That evening, Dr. Silk started Ryan on precautionary antibiotics (ampicillin and genomycin) to wipe out a possible systemic infection in his blood (this condition is called sepsis). Before starting antibiotics, Dr. Silk took a blood sample to culture for bacteria. Later, we discovered the culture was negative, so the infection was probably caused by a virus, which can’t be cured by antibiotics.

Because of Ryan’s unstable condition and my surgery, I had only seen Ryan for a few minutes just after he was born. Still confined to my hospital bed, I called the nursery for an update at 5:30 a.m. the next morning. I discovered that Ryan had been put on a ventilator (breathing machine) at 100% oxygen. When I realized how sick my baby was, I knew I must call a priest to baptize him. I watched the clock until about 7 a.m., then I paged Father Marcus Pollard of St. Veronica parish, whose parish includes Fair Oaks Hospital. Father Pollard told me he would rush over to baptize the baby whenever I needed him.

When my husband Tom arrived at the hospital, I struggled out of bed with the epidural needle still in my back and took a shower. I needed to see my baby. Just before noon, Tom and I went to see Ryan. How terribly sick and pale he looked, lying limply in a crib while a ventilator pumped air into his tiny chest. His eyelids fluttered a few times, but he was too weak to open his eyes. Father Pollard arrived around noon to baptize him. As he poured water on Ryan’s knee, he said, “I baptize you, Ryan James Elam, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.” As soon as the priest spoke these words, my heart was eased, knowing that I had done everything I could for Ryan. Now if he died, I took comfort in knowing that his soul would fly straight to heaven. (He was later conditionally baptized on the head in the usual way, in case the hospital baptism was invalid.)

Ryan on ventilator, 1 day old
Ryan on ventilator, 1 day old

A Prayer Request

Dr. Silk decided to move Ryan to Fairfax Hospital, where a special chemical called nitric oxide would be added to the oxygen already delivered by the ventilator. Nitric oxide helps the lungs work better than oxygen alone. By 4 p.m., it was clear that Ryan was near death. The blood vessels from his heart to his lungs collapsed, so his blood was getting very little oxygen; this condition is called PPHN or Persistent Pulmonary Hypertension of the Newborn. I kept saying, “I’m so glad he’s baptized.” As the doctors and nurses tried to stabilize Ryan for his ambulance ride, his oxygen level dipped to 25 (normal is 80 to 100). He turned a deathly grey; I knew my baby was dying. I told Dr. Marie Anderson, my other obstetrician, that I had offered my suffering for the conversion of a relative. Then I added, “My relative must be a hard case, because I sure am suffering.” Later, I was told that this relative was praying for Ryan’s recovery.

I watched the doctors and nurses try to save my baby’s life, crying into a towel, “My baby’s dying, my baby’s dying.” A nurse led me into the hall, where I sat down with my husband to pray and cry. I asked the Blessed Virgin Mary to intercede for Ryan before God; no one knew my agony better than Mary, who had watched her own son Jesus die. After we prayed, I put a prayer card with a picture of Mary in Ryan’s ambulance transport crib.

I sat and thought about what I could do for Ryan. I knew that God sometimes allows another to take on a person’s suffering. Then I whispered to God, “Let my baby live and give his suffering to me. But not my will but Thy will be done.” I was afraid what might happen to me after this. But I said to myself, “Who loves this baby more than I? Who else would offer to suffer for him?” The next day, I began suffering suffocating asthma-like symptoms, even though I don’t have asthma. I was told that my symptoms were probably caused by iron-deficient anemia due to blood loss during delivery. It is no coincidence, however, that I began to have trouble breathing only after I offered to take on Ryan’s suffering.

While we were praying, Ryan hovered at the edge of death. Dr. Silk exhausted all medical options available to stabilize him, but nothing helped. Then it occurred to the doctor that Ryan might have undiagnosed heart disease; there was no way to find out until he was moved to Fairfax Hospital. As a precaution, Dr. Silk gave him a shot of prostaglandin, a medicine used to treat cyanotic heart disease. This medicine temporarily opened the blood vessels to Ryan’s lungs and stabilized him enough to be moved. Dr. Silk’s inspired action, and God’s providence, kept Ryan alive on the ambulance ride to Fairfax Hospital.

At Fairfax Hospital, Ryan was immediately put on a ventilator with nitric oxide and oxygen, which quickly brought his oxygen level into the normal range. An echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart) showed that Ryan’s heart was strong and healthy. The problem was just in his lungs. By the time we checked on Ryan and talked to Dr. Beck and Dr. Lazarte, Fairfax Hospital neonatologists, it was nearly 10 p.m. Wednesday night. The hospital staff arranged for us to stay at the Ronald McDonald House on the grounds of Fairfax Hospital. Ronald McDonald Houses are available nationwide for families to stay in while their critically ill children undergo treatment at nearby hospitals. What a blessing to be welcomed by the staff and offered a comfortable room for only $10 per night.

At 5:30 a.m. Thursday morning, the Ronald McDonald House manager knocked on our bedroom door. The hospital staff had phoned. Ryan had become unstable even at the maximum nitric oxide dose and 100% oxygen. The only hope left for Ryan was a rare treatment called ECMO. Only two hospitals in the Washington area had ECMO machines. Tom rushed to the hospital to sign papers allowing Ryan to be moved to Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where an ECMO machine was available. Ryan was supposed to be transported by helicopter. After several anxious hours of waiting for a helicopter to arrive from Children’s, we were told the nitric oxide machine would not fit on the helicopter, so an ambulance was sent instead.

Ryan arrived at Children’s National Medical Center at two days old. When we arrived at the hospital nursery, we scrubbed up to the elbows and went in to see Ryan. It was a shock to see all the tubes and wires connected to him: an intravenous line into his belly button to measure oxygen and carbon dioxide levels; electrodes on his chest to measure heart rate; a catheter in his arm to deliver water, vitamins, and medicine; another catheter to drain urine; a clear tube in his lungs to suction mucus; a white ventilator tube to send air into his lungs; a blue ventilator tube to let air out of his lungs; and a feeding tube (called a gavage tube) from his mouth to his stomach.

He was receiving the same treatment as at Fairfax Hospital—a ventilator delivering 100% oxygen and nitric oxide, three blood pressure medicines (epinephrine, dobutamine, and dopamine) to keep his blood pressure from dropping, and a paralytic drug called pavulon, which kept him paralyzed so he wouldn’t breathe against the ventilator. The only difference was that the ECMO machine was now available if needed.

The hospital staff arranged for us to stay at the Ronald McDonald House in Washington, D.C. When we arrived, I rested in the rocking chair in the lobby while Tom checked in. I was weary and aching from abdominal surgery only two days before. Celia, the manager on duty, presented us with a baby quilt, a photo album, and a polar bear toy for Ryan. These may be the only gifts my baby will ever have, I thought. I knew nothing about the ECMO treatment, except that if it didn’t work, Ryan would die.

The Lord Giveth; the Lord Taketh Away

I believe the Blessed Virgin Mary heard our request for her intercession and sent us three signs. When we first visited Ryan at Children’s, I was sad to discover the Mary prayer card placed in Ryan’s transport crib had been lost during the move from Fairfax Hospital. That evening, as we returned to our room at the Ronald McDonald House, we met a Catholic woman. When she realized we were Catholic also, she said, “Wait, I have something for you.” She disappeared into her room and returned a moment later with a large picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She said, “When I was at the Basilica yesterday, I accidentally bought two pictures of Mary. Now I know why; I’m supposed to give this one to you.” And she did; that was the first sign. The second sign came a week later, when we received a letter from Fairfax Hospital. Inside was the lost prayer card and a letter from a woman who said she was returning the prayer card to us and signed her name only as “Mary.”

On Sunday morning, Tom picked up our three older children to attend church. Becca, almost 12, had been staying with friends during the week so she could attend Seton Catholic School in Manassas. Kevin, 10, and Teresa, 19 months, had been staying with my sister Pamela and her family in Maryland. We attended Mass at the Franciscan Monastery next door to the Ronald McDonald House. During the service, I wondered sadly if Ryan would die before the other children ever saw him. Several nights I had dreamed of Ryan dressed in a white baptismal gown, lying in a tiny coffin. From the Franciscan gift shop, I carefully chose four prayer cards—Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and James the apostle (Ryan’s patron saint)—and a blue rosary to bring him as gifts. I cried to think I might be burying these gifts with him. Around noon, I began to suffer from the worst migraine headache I have ever experienced.

When we arrived at the hospital Sunday afternoon, we were distressed to discover that the hospital staff had been trying to reach us since noon without success. Ryan’s condition was deteriorating; his oxygen level had been dipping from the 90’s into the 70’s all afternoon. Brain damage can occur below this level. I believe my headache was spiritually related to Ryan’s suffering that day.

Ryan’s doctor, Dr. Mary Revenis, had decided to put Ryan on the ECMO machine. She explained that two plastic tubes would be inserted into one of Ryan’s jugular veins and threaded down to his heart. The ECMO machine, which is a heart-lung bypass machine, would take blood from his body, oxygenate it, and then pump it back into him. The machine does most of the work of the lungs and heart, allowing these organs to rest and heal for several weeks, if necessary. Because complications such as blood clots can be fatal, ECMO is reserved for patients who will die without it. Even so, the doctor assured us that 90% of ECMO babies survive.

Since it took several hours to set up the ECMO machine, Becca and Kevin were allowed to see Ryan for a few minutes. As the nurses began to set up for the ECMO operation, I quickly taped the rosary and four prayer cards on Ryan’s crib. Whether he lived or died, I accepted God’s will with the prayer, “The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Only much later did I notice the date of that Sunday on which Ryan’s life-saving operation took place: September 8th, the birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This was the third sign.

Ryan on ECMO, full shot
Ryan on ECMO, full shot
Ryan on ECMO, closeup
Ryan on ECMO, closeup

Coming Home At Last

During the four days that the ECMO machine oxygenated Ryan’s blood and pumped it back into his body, his lungs were able to rest and heal somewhat. It was shocking when we first saw Ryan―a little baby with his blood pumping through tubes that ran from his jugular vein to the ECMO machine. A nurse noticed Tom looking pale and quickly offered him a seat to keep him from fainting.

A Nigerian missionary priest, Father Dominic Eshi Kena, visited Ryan and prayed fervently over him three times. I told him how I offered to take on Ryan’s suffering. He said, “I always offer to take on the suffering of the patients I visit. When other priests ask me why, I tell them it works. I’ve never had it fail.” I told him that the Blessed Virgin Mary had interceded to help Ryan and described the signs she had sent us. I said, “People may not believe me, but I know she helped Ryan.” Father Dominic urged me to share Ryan’s miraculous story with everyone I met.

Ryan with Father Dominic
Ryan with Father Dominic

Ryan was taken off the ECMO machine when he was nine days old. My asthma-like symptoms started the day after I offered to take on Ryan’s suffering; they stopped the day after Ryan came off the ECMO machine. He was weaned from the ventilator two days later, but continued to receive oxygen through nasal tubes for another week.

Ryan with Dr. Mary Revenis
Ryan with Dr. Mary Revenis

On day 17, Ryan was moved back to Fair Oaks Hospital at our request. This transfer allowed me to leave the Ronald McDonald House after three weeks and come home. For the next week, I visited Ryan every day in the hospital as he made steady progress: first, he was weaned off extra oxygen, then he learned to bottle-feed, finally to nurse. Even though he was still breathing twice as fast as normal at 60 breaths per minute and his chest retracted (sank in) when he breathed, the doctors expected full recovery of his lungs by age two. Ryan came home on September 28, after spending nearly a month in the hospital.

Ryan and Mom with Dr. Alan Silk
Ryan and Mom with Dr. Alan Silk

I give thanks to all the dedicated doctors and nurses who were God’s instruments in saving Ryan’s life. I give thanks to the Blessed Virgin Mary for interceding for Ryan. Most of all, I give thanks to God for giving our precious baby back to us.

God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain. Pain is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world. ~ C. S. Lewis

Postscript: Ryan turned ten years old in September 2012. His lungs fully recovered and he has not suffered any brain damage or developmental delays.

 

Becca (12), Kevin (10), Teresa (20 months), and Ryan (2 months)
Becca (12), Kevin (10), Teresa (20 months), and Ryan (2 months)

Ryan, age 3
Ryan, age 3

Written: December 2002
Revised: February 2013