Three-year-old Mary Patricia Roeder ministers to everyone she meets, but, at first glance, some may not understand the blessings God brings through her. Severely handicapped, unable to speak or take in enough nourishment to sustain herself, Mary Pat’s life has been marked by struggle, uncertainty and long waiting.
But the Roeder family is undoubtedly blessed.
Mary Pat was born during a snowstorm on a cold day in February 2007. Her parents, Bruce and Suzy Roeder, expected nothing out of the ordinary when they set out for the hospital, leaving their seven older children at home to await the arrival of their new sister.
Suzy remembers that day clearly. “It was a typical day when you’re going to be induced,” she recalls. “Labor was great.” Then, suddenly, the day turned from a day of happy expectation to one of worry.
The Roeders’ first inkling that something was amiss was the sudden silence in the delivery room as the hospital personnel swiftly went to work on their new baby.
“I was caught off guard,” recalls Bruce. “I watched as the doctors were unable to get Mary Pat to breathe. I really did just put everything in God’s hands at that moment.”
Little Mary Pat was taken by ambulance (the snowstorm prevented an airlift) to Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo. Suzy remembers, gratefully, the rugged Vietnam veteran-turned-anesthesiologist who kept Mary Pat alive for two hours.
Diagnosed with Pierre Robin Sequence, the baby’s future was uncertain. This combination of birth defects can be simply cosmetic or linked with other serious syndromes. “She could be essentially of normal intelligence with some physical abnormalities, she could be mildly learning disabled, or she could be unable to walk, talk and be severely retarded,” Suzy shared. “The hardest part was not knowing.”
“This self-proclaimed most impatient, self-centered person was faced with incomprehensible challenge,” she says. “But there was a peace that came that I cannot describe. God chose us to be her parents.”
Mary Pat had been born with obvious abnormalities — and some that would make their presence known over time; abnormalities that threatened her life and that continue to challenge her and her family. “There is a list of a dozen diagnoses of problems,” says Suzy. “She had at least 10 specialists following her.”
Two days after birth, she had her first surgery to help lengthen her jaw and fix her cleft palate. Says Suzy, “She never cried. The strength of this child is amazing. I said that her guardian angel must be St. Michael himself.”
Living through those stressful days was difficult for Mary Pat’s mother. “During that hospital stay, I felt like I had to get out of there,” Suzy remembers. But she had a vision of Mary at the foot of the cross that helped her stay by her daughter’s side.
Suzy had always struggled with the role of the Blessed Mother. “Mary was a sticking point for me as a convert,” she says. “But at that moment, I understood.”
Just one week after Mary Pat’s homecoming from the monthlong stay in the hospital, she stopped breathing due to severe reflux. Five months later, she returned to the hospital for new surgery to insert a gastrostomy tube to help her get the nourishment she needed.
Up to that time, Suzy, a former nurse, had to maintain Mary Pat’s nasogastric tube, necessary for the little girl’s nourishment. “There were times when I’d be crying putting in that NG tube,” she recalls. “You just want your baby to eat, and we couldn’t get enough into her.”
The surgeon, during the surgery, discovered other problems.
“It was the surgery that miraculously found the life-threatening problem [diaphragmatic hernia, a birth defect characterized by an abnormal opening in the diaphram, which causes some of the abdominal organs to move into the chest cativity] and allowed it to be repaired.”
A year later, an MRI of Mary Pat’s brain indicated a problem called gray matter heterotopia, where parts of the brain are in the wrong spot. “This is linked to learning disabilities and possible seizures,” Suzy says. “We hope she does not get the seizures.”
Mary Pat’s Example
Throughout that time and up to the present, facing the unknowns associated with Mary Pat has been an opportunity for her mother to learn patience. “I always knew I was never a patient person,” Suzy says. “Mary Pat has made me learn long-term patience.”
The rest of the family also feels blessed by the presence of Mary Pat. “It’s a blessing to see the love she brings out in her siblings,” Suzy says. “With every milestone, we’re overjoyed. It’s almost like a miracle. It doesn’t matter that it’s delayed three years.”
Still, even with the progress Mary Pat has made, her future is an unknown that the family has accepted. Not knowing doesn’t bother her big sister Marie at all. “Mary Pat’s just that awesome,” she says.
Sherry Domann has been in contact with the family from the early days. Domann, the services coordinator of the Atchison City Infant/Toddler Program, coordinated the services Mary Pat needed. “I didn’t put any limitations on her,” Domann says. “My experience is that children exceed our expectations.”
For a long time, Mary Pat didn’t respond to her helpers. “The turning point came when she began to engage with other people,” Domann says. “It was a long process. But the family was so responsive. Not just Mary Pat’s parents, but her siblings, too. She was lucky to be born into the family and circumstances she was born into.”
The little girl has influenced her family, her therapists and the community. “She makes us look at our interactions with other people differently and how patient we can be,” Domann says. “She teaches us about ourselves, and the experience changes you as a person.”
A matter of months ago, the idea of Mary Pat walking seemed outrageous as she struggled to sit up, control her head or grasp a spoon. But there she is in her bright red walker, putting one foot in front of the other as she tips her head up. She beams her classic smile at her visitor’s exclamations at seeing the little girl on her feet. Mary Pat revels in the moment as her family cheers her on.
In early December, for the first time, Mary Pat stood alone and clapped her hands.
The Roeders live in a sprawling older home that in the past served as an abbey and a bed and breakfast.
In this season when we recall the family that didn’t have room at the inn — but experienced the greatest Miracle of all — there is room at the inn for one special little girl, and everyone expresses joy in the sublime reality that is Mary Pat and the miracles to come.
Laurie Ghigliotti writes from Atchison, Kansas.