Adorable Baby James lights up the room with his cherubic face, dimpled smile and clear blue eyes. He looks the picture of health.
Ten years ago, his mother, Ann Smith, was at the Ronald McDonald House next to a northeastern pediatric hospital praying for a miracle for her six-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’s feast is June 11): 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. 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 (age 9) and Elizabeth (age 6), 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 retained 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 4D.
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,” Ann remembered. “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.
The doctor referred her 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 assigned to the Vatican.
Ann asked the sister to pray for their unborn son, and she promised to continue praying for that intention in Rome.
After extensive sonography, doctors diagnosed Baby James with hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS), a condition where the left side of the heart does not fully develop in the womb.
“The prognosis was grim,” Ann said. “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 remembered.
The Smith family prayed countless Rosaries for their baby and asked others to pray.
“There were 500 kids praying each day,” Ann gratefully said of the prayers from her school staff and students. “A group of moms had a weekly adoration hour for him.” Friends and family around the world prayed for Baby James.
Doctors gave Ann a medicine that could possibly help James’ heart.
“The disease is similar to congestive heart failure in adults,” David explained. “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.”
Improvement occurred after three days of the medicine. On March 21, Baby James was born by cesarean, 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 remembered. “I looked up at the clouds and saw Jesus’ face.”
Then the Blessed Mother replaced Ann in the dream.
Our Lady 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,’” Cecilia said.
This dream gave Ann strength for what lie ahead.
At 8 days old, Baby James had open-heart surgery. Another procedure occurred three weeks later.
Then Baby James took a turn for the worse.
“It was awful. He was white as a sheet,” Ann said. “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 taught in a classroom dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus for the past 10 years, continued relying on her faith. She prayed the Rosary every day while James was in the hospital. People gave her relics to put in his crib, as well as holy water and blessed oil.
She always hoped for 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 cried 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: A heart was available.
The surgery went amazingly well. His recovery was the quickest the hospital ever witnessed. He went home in one month. He continues doing well.
Thankful to God
Looking back, the family thanks God. They are firm believers in the power of the prayer.
“There are no chances–it is all Providence,” said former parochial vicar of the family’s parish Fr. Michael Duesterhaus.
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 prayed constantly for James.
Family friend Lisa Hill-Sutton said, “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, recorded 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.”
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