Virginia Catholic Kept Alive For Baby
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Susan Torres, like any loving, expectant mother, is nurturing the unborn child in her womb.
The difference between Susan and other pregnant women is that Susan is brain dead, and her body is being sustained with life-support systems.
On May 7, the day before Mother's Day, Susan Torres, a vaccine researcher at the National Institutes of Health, lost consciousness at home in Alexandria, Va. She had not been feeling well for weeks, and her husband, Jason, was serving her dinner in bed. She stopped breathing, and Jason called 911. He performed CPR while waiting for an ambulance.
The 26-year-old woman was rushed to Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington for what was believed to be a brain aneurism. But doctors discovered that Torres had a melanoma, a return of the deadly cancer for which she had been treated at age 17, at the back of her brain.
The new tumor's eventual growth put too much pressure on her brain, and a resulting hemorrhage left her devoid of brain function. Her doctors would have taken her off life support were she not pregnant. But they operated to relieve some of the pressure on her brain and are keeping her alive for the sake of her unborn baby. She was 17 weeks pregnant at the time of her collapse.
“We knew from the beginning that we had other options,” said Justin Torres, Jason's brother and spokesman for the family. “The doctors laid everything on the table for us and made it clear that they couldn't guarantee anything. But I come from a big family, and we love children. We believe that if you can fight for the child, then you should fight for the child. Plus, Susan wanted this baby, and we knew that if she were here, she would tell us to do exactly what we're doing, even if it takes the amount of mental and emotional energy this child is taking.”
By mid-June, the cancer had spread to Susan's neck, back and the lymph nodes under her arms, according to a June 17 Washington Post report. Treating the cancer would harm the baby. The pregnancy must progress far enough to safely deliver the baby before the cancer spreads throughout Susan's body to the womb and her unborn child. In mid-July, when she reaches 25 weeks of pregnancy, the baby will have a greater chance of survival outside of the womb.
The family is praying for a miracle.
“They are extraordinary Catholics going through an extraordinary trial,” said Father Denis Donahue, pastor of St. Rita's parish in Alexandria, where the Torreses, along with their 2-year-old son Peter, have been parishioners.
“Susan loved Peter, and was so happy to be pregnant again. She would go to heroic measures to save the lives of her children, which is what Susan and Jason are doing now for their unborn child.”
The Torres’ heroism is being tested in many ways. Not only must Jason, also 26, cope with the loss of his wife, the challenge of parenting two motherless children and the medical complications from a child born prematurely, but he also faces a huge financial loss because insurance covers a mere fraction of the cost of keeping Susan alive.
According to The Washington Post report, Jason estimates that his cost for Susan's 110- to 130-day hospital stay will be $300,000 to $400,000.
For that reason, the family has appealed to the media to tell Susan's story and has established a website (susantorresfund.org) to help raise funds to cover the ensuing medical expenses.
First Baby Kick
A June 21 update on the website said that Jason and Susan's parents felt the baby kick for the first time: “A nice day. And a good reminder, amidst everything, of what this is all about.” A sonogram on that day showed a normal, healthy infant and that the pregnancy was progressing optimally, according to Justin.
By June 24, the family still didn't know the baby's sex.
“Jason is understandably tired and overwhelmed by the sudden explosion of media attention. Yet, given the circumstances Jason is doing remarkably well. He's far more composed that I would be,” said Justin, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a contributor to a Catholic blog, TheThingIs (thefactis.org/TheThingIs/).
Skeptics might question Jason Torres’ decision to accept the risks involved in keeping Susan's body alive. But ethicist Edward Furton of The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia is certain Jason is doing the right thing.
“No one has ever recovered from brain death,” he said. “Jason is correct in his decision to do what's best for the life of the child. Unfortunately, the unborn child is considered not of any value in our culture. It's one of the regrettable consequences of the Roe v. Wade decision.”
“From an ethical standpoint,” said Kevin Miller, associate professor of theology at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, “the baby is a patient, too. Whatever the doctors can do for the health of the baby, they should do.”
Arlington internist Chris McManus, also a Catholic, is Susan's physician. On June 16, he told The Washington Times, “Fortunately, a lot of friends are saying a lot of prayers for her. We're doing her breathing for her, and her heart is still good. The focus is in taking care of any infections that come up. There are a lot of bridges to cross with her. But with technology, we can keep the body alive. How long, we cannot say.”
The Torres family is astonished by the response they've received from Catholics and non-Catholics all over the country who have reached out to them.
“It's not easy to trample your own privacy” by opening yourself to public attention, said Justin. “But the response has been amazing, not just because of the financial support, but because of the notes, Mass cards, prayers, and well wishes of people we will never meet in what is obviously a very difficult and even a very lonely time.
“So many people have taken this to heart, and we will keep them in our prayers,” he added. “We know this: This is a very wanted baby.”
Marge Fenelon is based in Cudahy, Wisconsin.
The Susan M. Torres Fund
P.O. Box 34105
Washington, DC, 20043-0105
[email protected] Or call Dan Purtill
- July 3-9, 2005