New Life Out of Tragedy

ARLINGTON, Va. — Susan Torres is dead after cancer left her unable to stay alive without the help of machines — but her newborn baby daughter is alive and thriving.

Her final months, played out on a national stage, were a testament to her and her husband Jason's openness to life, said an activist whose foundation supported Jason Torres during the ordeal.

“I think this has been a tremendous example of fidelity in marriage, both to their marriage vows and to their commitment to openness to life, and to Susan's very evident, utterly unambiguous commitment to the sanctity of life,” said Paul Schenk, executive director of the National Pro-Life Action Center.

The Center assisted in administering the Susan M. Torres Fund, which is collecting money to pay medical expenses for the family.

This was “an ordinary family, doing extraordinary things,” Schenk said.

Susan was a convert to Catholicism whose relationship with her husband Jason from the beginning was grounded in her faith. Her life support was removed Aug. 3, after doctors delivered her daughter Susan Anne Catherine, by Caesarean section Aug. 2 at 8:18 p.m. at the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Va.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church neatly sums up the difference between a case like Susan's and that of Terri Schiavo, who lived for weeks until she finally starved to death after her feeding tube was removed by court order.

“Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of ‘over-zealous’ treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one's inability to impede it is merely accepted. The decisions should be made by the patient if he is competent and able or, if not, by those legally entitled to act for the patient, whose reasonable will and legitimate interests must always be respected” (No. 2278).

The baby was premature at 27 weeks and weighed just 1 pound, 13 ounces, but “came out kicking and screaming” with a healthy head of dark, curly hair, said Torres family spokeswoman Merci Schlapp.

“Doctors are very optimistic — she's breathing on her own,” Schlapp told the Register. The baby will remain in the neonatal unit at the hospital until her original due date of October, hospital officials said.

Torres, a former researcher at the National Institutes of Health, lost consciousness from a stroke May 7 after aggressive melanoma spread to her brain. Jason Torres said doctors told him his wife's brain functions had stopped. He was at her side, having brought her breakfast in bed, when she collapsed and administered CPR in an effort to save her.

With Susan just 15 weeks pregnant, Jason chose to keep his wife alive for the baby she was so happy to be carrying. The couple's first child, Peter, is 2, and he has stayed with his grandparents during the ordeal.

Jason quit his job and slept by Susan's side in a reclining chair for the past three months.

In the first days of August, doctors determined Susan's cancer had spread too far and the baby was in danger.

“Her blood pressure started to become irregular as well as her heart rate,” Schlapp said.

After doctors delivered Susan Anne Catherine, her mother, Susan, was given the sacrament of the sick, and then her life support was turned off.

“After a brief goodbye with her husband, parents and family members, and after receiving the last sacraments of the Catholic Church, Susan Michelle Rollin Torres passed away,” said Susan's brother-in-law, Justin Torres at an Aug. 3 press conference at the hospital.

“Her passing is testament to the truth that human life is a gift from God and that children are always to be fought for, even if life requires — as it did of Susan — their last measure of devotion,” Justin Torres said.

“We rejoice at news of Susan Anne Catherine Torres,” said Arlington Bishop Paul Loverde in a statement. “I am deeply moved by the extraordinary witness to the sacredness of life from its very beginning, which the Torres family has given to our society. We now mourn the loss of Susan, and bring her and her entire family before the Lord in prayer.”

Life of Faith

Susan had been diagnosed with melanoma at age 17 but since then had been told she was cancer-free. Several weeks before she lost consciousness, she complained of not feeling well, but doctors could not find anything wrong with her.

The baby has a less than 25% risk of developing her mother's melanoma, the Los Angeles Times reported. Dr. Christopher McManus, who coordinated care for Susan Torres, said 19 women who had the same aggressive form of melanoma have given birth and five of their babies contracted the disease.

English-language literature contains at least 11 cases since 1979 of irreversibly brain-damaged women whose lives were sustained for the unborn child to develop, the Times reported.

The Torres family's insurance only covered about two-thirds of the hospital costs, with about $2,500 a day in daily hospital expenses accumulating plus other daily expenses for the family, Schenk said. A special fund has been set up for those who want to help the family.

Susan Torres met her husband, Jason, at the University of Dallas after she had converted from a Protestant denomination, and their entire life was grounded in faith, Schenk said.

“It really was a tremendous parable,” Schenk said, noting thousands of people all over the world responded with prayers and donations. “In that way, Susan was a missionary and an extraordinary one. She gave little baby Susan Anne Catherine life. Jesus was there as the Protector through the whole drama.”

Valerie Schmalz is based in San Francisco, California.

Catholic News Service contributed to this story.


Contributions to help with the family's expenses may be sent to Susan M. Torres Fund c/o Faith and Action P.O. Box 34105 Washington, DC 20043

Pope Francis waves to pilgrims during his Angelus address August 30, 2020.

Pope Francis: The Path to Holiness Requires Spiritual Combat

Reflecting on Sunday’s Gospel, the pope said that “living a Christian life is not made up of dreams or beautiful aspirations, but of concrete commitments, in order to open ourselves ever more to God's will and to love for our brothers and sisters.”