Baby John Paul: Witness to Life
To celebrate the Pope's 25th Anniversary, we present 25 babies named for the Holy Father.
A quarter-century after the election of Pope John Paul II, there are lots of Catholic families who have honored “John Paul the Great” by naming boys for the Pope.
One St. Louis couple has a particularly keen reason to be thankful for theirs. John Paul Thomas Vlahutin's story is miraculous and inspiring. Vlahutin was born Feb. 24, 2003, nearly 17 weeks early. Peter and Jenny Vlahutin say that their son's survival is a testament to the power of prayer.
Pregnancy did not come easily for the Vlahutins. The couple had been trying to conceive for several months. Working with their natural family planning physician, Dr. Michael Dixon, Jenny, a kindergarten teacher, underwent two surgeries during the summer of 2002.
“On Columbus Day, Jenny called to tell me she had called the doctor and picked up a pregnancy test,” Peter recalls. “When I came home, we did the test.”
Sure enough, on their second try with the test, they saw the result they'd been praying for.
“We were ecstatic,” says Peter, who works as campus minister for Chaminade College Preparatory School in St. Louis. “We were jumping up and down.” The baby's projected due date was June 18, 2003.
The pregnancy progressed normally. Jenny experienced very little sickness. Her weight gain was normal and all her ultrasounds were good.
Then, on Feb. 23, things took a perilous turn.
That night Jenny began experiencing back pain. With her due date so far in the future — she was less than six months pregnant — she had no idea that the discomfort was a sign of labor. The next morning she went to see her doctor, who determined that she was fast approaching delivery. She was rushed to the labor-and-delivery ward, where attempts were made to stop her contractions. When these proved unsuccessful, her physician decided to transfer her by ambulance to St. John's Mercy Medical Center.
Peter drove separately — and experienced a powerful moment of grace while alone in his car. “I realized that this child was a gift,” he says. “I don't get to determine how the gift comes or what it looks like. I may only have the gift for two minutes, two days, two months or two years. That is in God's hands. All we could do was receive the gift and do with it what we can.”
On Feb. 24 at 10:53 p.m., Jenny gave birth to a baby boy. He was just 1 pound 5 ounces and 12 inches long. Peter's wedding ring fit around the baby's wrist.
The nurse turned to Peter and Jenny and asked, “Does this boy have a name?”
“We are, by nature, lengthy decision makers,” Peter says. “Thankfully, we had chosen baby names.”
The previous November, the couple had prayed for direction regarding a name. At Mass one Sunday, Jenny received signs of a sort confirming the names they had chosen — Bernadette and John Paul.
What were the signs? The deacon delivered a homily on the Pope and the congregation sang two hymns written by women named Bernadette.
“We have a tremendous amount of respect and reverence for the Pope,” Peter says. “I saw him at World Youth Day in Denver in 1993. The year we were engaged, both Jenny and I participated in the youth rally and Mass when the Pope came to St. Louis and, in September 2000, we both saw him in Rome for the beatification of Father William Joseph Chaminade.”
Power of Prayer
Peter and Jenny knew that John Paul's greatest need was prayer. They also knew they weren't alone. Within 24 hours of the baby's birth, their friends and families went into action. Family friend Tim Chik story organized people to pray in St. Louis. Another friend, Bill Dill, organized people to pray in St. Paul, Minn., and elsewhere.
When Dill heard that the first three days were the most critical to the baby's prognosis, he formed a 72-hour prayer team; its members sought to “hold John Paul up in prayer.” With the help of Greg Damm, Dill and Chik put together a Web site and organized more than 150 prayer partners from around the United States, Canada and Australia.
Dill recalls trying to recruit people to fill the late-night prayer spots. “I called Tim Chik on his cell phone,” he explains. “He happened to be at a men's prayer group that Peter was a part of that meets every two weeks. I could hear one man after another saying in the background, 'I'll take 2 a.m. I'll take 3 a.m., I'll take 4 a.m.' These brothers were standing up saying 'I've got this baby covered.'”
“We had made plans to have John Paul baptized immediately,” says Peter, “but the doctors were confident enough that we could wait.”
The couple's parish priest, Father John Leykam of Holy Trinity parish, baptized John Paul the next day.
“Our doctors acknowledged how much better John Paul seemed to do after the baptism,” Peter says. One experienced medical professional told the couple: “We're not foolish enough to believe that we do this on our own.”
Over the course of the next four months, the couple experienced many ups and downs — and several serious scares.
“The doctors were very frank with us,” Peter says. “They told us that 1 in 3 babies at this stage survives and, of those who survive, the majority will have serious complications.”
Another doctor told them that they had to try to get a tube down John Paul's throat to help him breathe. “If it doesn't work, we will bring him back to you and let you hold him as long as you can,” the doctor told them.
On March 17, three weeks after John Paul's birth, Jenny was able to hold her son for the first time. He was no longer than her forearm and just about as thin.
“I was so anxious the day before and the day of,” Jenny says. “It was absolutely amazing to hold him. For the first few minutes, I was holding my breath. The nurse told me, 'It's okay; you can breathe now.' Once I heard he was doing well, I could relax. I was in awe of the opportunity to hold someone so small.”
Throughout the ordeal, the Vlahutins recall, a palpable sense of peace enveloped them. This they attribute to the outpouring of prayer and support they received.
Aside from laser surgery to repair his underdeveloped retinas, John Paul didn't experience the myriad complications common among most “preemies.”
“He had no issues with his gut,” Peter says. “No problems with his esophagus. The valve and shunt between the heart and lungs closed up the way it was supposed to. His brain and heart were fine, and he didn't even need the hernia surgery that most preemie boys need.”
Jenny says that the experience gave her “a new appreciation for life.”
“Having John Paul was like having a window into the womb,” she adds. “We were able to hold in our hands what is going on in the womb. I know that God will use John Paul's story for other women who might be struggling with the abortion issue.”
John Paul Vlahutin went home on June 26, just eight days after his official due date.
Now seven months old, John Paul is growing slowly but surely. Mom and Dad report that he's beginning to smile, grab things and put stuff in his mouth. In September, he was taken off oxygen during the daytime hours. Soon, he will no longer need oxygen at night, either.
The Vlahutins are happy to see their son without a cannula, the oxygen mask that has been attached to his face since his birth.
“It's like seeing someone for the first time without their glasses,” Jenny says.
And John Paul loves to be held.
“He went for so long where he was supposed to be held but wasn't,” Peter says. “We don't have any fear of spoiling him in that area.”
Tim Drake was born a month prematurely 36 years ago.
He writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.