Adorable Baby James lights up the room with his cherubic face, dimpled smile and clear blue eyes. He looks the picture of health.
Just one year ago, his mother, Ann Smith, was at the Ronald McDonald House next to a northeastern pediatric hospital praying for a miracle for her 6-week-old baby who needed a heart transplant in order to survive.
Prayers from around the world were answered when she and her husband, David, received a call at 4:30am on July 1, the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (this year the feast is June 15): There was a heart available for James.
“I consider July 1 his second birthday,” Ann shares, explaining that he was born on March 21 but never left the hospital; when he received his new heart, he had a new chance at life.
James is a living miracle, and the story of his life, and the faith and love of his family, strengthens the faith of all who hear it.
The journey of the Smith family (not their real name; they requested anonymity) is all about hope. “We love what he can bring to other people,” says Ann.
Ann and David were thankful to be expecting their fourth child in the fall of 2010. Their daughters Cecilia and Elizabeth were 9 and 6 years old, and they had lost a baby to miscarriage in 2007. Ann’s current pregnancy had been termed high-risk after cramping brought her to a northern Virginia hospital emergency room over Labor Day weekend and a sonogram revealed possible placenta previa.
After closer examination, her obstetrician/gynecologist gave her the go-ahead to continue teaching at their local Catholic elementary school, saying that she did not have true placenta previa. The remainder of her first and second trimesters were uneventful, other than the fact that she was retaining a lot of water and was constantly thirsty.
At 28 weeks into the pregnancy, Ann went in for a routine sonogram, excited for the opportunity to see her baby in 4-D. She and David brought their daughters to see their unborn sibling on the screen. “The technician used to be at a high-risk pregnancy center,” remembers Ann. “She left the room after measuring and examining the heart and brought in the doctor.”
The Smiths knew that something was seriously wrong when the doctor did not want to give his opinion and said they should immediately see a specialist.
She was referred to a specialist in another city, and family flew in to help take care of the older children. While picking up her mother at the airport, the Smiths met a Dominican sister who was assigned to the Vatican. Ann asked her to pray for their unborn son, and she promised to continue to pray for that intention in Rome.
After extensive sonography, doctors diagnosed Baby James with hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS), a condition in which the left side of the heart does not fully develop in the womb. “The prognosis was grim,” Ann says. “They basically said that he would die by February, before he was born.” “I said, ‘We have to do something; we can’t just let him die,’” Ann remembers.
The Smith family prayed countless Rosaries for their baby and asked others to pray, too. “There were 500 kids praying each day,” Ann says gratefully of the prayers from her school staff and students. “There was a group of moms that had a weekly adoration hour for him.” Friends and family around the world were praying for Baby James.
Doctors decided to give Ann a medicine that could possibly help James’ heart.
“The disease is similar to congestive heart failure in adults,” David explains. “They decided to put Ann on digoxin, which in adults helps get rid of the water. She was admitted to the hospital for three days while they monitored her on the drug.”
After three days of the medicine, there was improvement. On March 21, Baby James was born by a cesarean birth, weighing a remarkable 9 lbs. 2 oz. Baby James was baptized in the hospital immediately after his birth. There were constant tiny improvements in Baby James’ condition.
Older sister Cecilia had a dream that gave strength and peace to her parents. “In my dream, my mom and I were at the playground,” Cecilia remembers. “I looked up at the clouds and saw Jesus’ face.” Then Ann was replaced by the Blessed Mother in the dream. Mary told Cecilia to touch her heart. In place of a real heart was a hand-drawn heart that turned into the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Mary’s eyes shone golden rays.
“Mary said, ‘Don’t be afraid. Your little brother will be okay,’” says Cecilia.
This dream gave Ann strength for what lie ahead.
At 8 days old, Baby James had open-heart surgery. Three weeks later another procedure was done.
Then Baby James took a turn for the worse. “It was awful. He was white as a sheet,” Ann says. “He was just lying there. It was heartbreaking to see him so sick.” Ann knew that the doctors were right: He needed a heart transplant.
“I began to pray for the perfect heart at the perfect time,” she says.
On Mother’s Day weekend 2011, he was taken by helicopter to a specialized pediatric hospital as his condition worsened. The family made the five-hour journey by car. James spent much of June in the intensive care unit (ICU).
Ann, who had taught in a classroom dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus for the past 10 years, continued to rely on her faith. She prayed the Rosary every day with him in the hospital. People gave her relics to put in his crib, as well as holy water and blessed oil. She was always hopeful that there would be a miracle.
At the end of June, as Baby James grew weaker, Ann sobbed on her knees at a Catholic church near the hospital, turning the desperate situation again over to God. “I’m here, and I lay it down,” she remembers crying out to the Father. “You know what I want. I lay it at your feet.”
Two days later, the phone call came early in the morning: There was a heart available.
The surgery went amazingly well. His recovery was the quickest ever witnessed by the hospital; he went home in one month. He continues to do well.
Thankful to God
Looking back over the past year, the family is thankful to God. They are firm believers in the power of the prayer.
“There are no chances; it is all Providence,” says Father Michael Duesterhaus, former parochial vicar at the family’s parish, who is now stationed in Africa as a military chaplain. “God must have something special in mind for this little boy.” He said that the parish, under the patronage of Our Lady, has a perpetual adoration chapel, where parishioners were praying constantly for James.
Says family friend Lisa Hill-Sutton, “It’s been an ongoing lesson for me because I saw the three cardinal virtues playing out right in front of me: the unshakable faith during the pregnancy, the hope that their baby would receive his new heart, and the love that continues to nurture him each and every day.”
A 14-foot-long strand of colorful beads, each with a color-coded meaning, record the days James spent in the hospital. The hospital volunteers helped Ann put together the memory beads. A rainbow bead marks the end of the day, a red bead is a blood transfusion, a star-shaped bead is a day in the ICU, a black bead is a “poke” or shot. Some days were a long strand of beads marking much suffering. A beautiful, glass, heart-shaped bead marks the day James received his new heart.
The lesson for all is the message of the love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as proclaimed by St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, “the Heart that has so loved men.”
Lisa Socarras writes from Annandale, Virginia.