March 9, 2007

‘She’s truly a miracle’: Prayers, faith sustained family through infant’s fight for life

St. Simon the Apostle parishioners Chris and Paje Felts of Indianapolis pose for a family portrait on Feb. 10 with their 5-year-old twins, Madeline, left, and Patrick, right, their 2-year-old daughter, Jacqueline, and 10-week-old daughter, Anne Therese, who is named for St. Theodora Guérin.

St. Simon the Apostle parishioners Chris and Paje Felts of Indianapolis pose for a family portrait on Feb. 10 with their 5-year-old twins, Madeline, left, and Patrick, right, their 2-year-old daughter, Jacqueline, and 10-week-old daughter, Anne Therese, who is named for St. Theodora Guérin.

By Mary Ann Wyand

At first glance, Anne Therese Felts looks like any thriving 10-week-old baby.

“Annie”—as her older brother and sisters call her—has a sweet little face and a beautiful smile. And she is healthy now.

While every baby is a miracle, the story of her rare medical condition and amazing fight for life is especially miraculous.

“Miracles happen to those who believe in them,” a French proverb, could be inscribed in her baby book.

She is named for Anne Therese Guérin, the French nun who founded the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. Mother Theodore Guérin is now known to the world as St. Theodora.

The fourth child of St. Simon the Apostle parishioners Chris and Paje (Etling) Felts of Indianapolis was diagnosed with a rare pericardial teratoma—a racquetball-sized tumor attached to her heart—at 27 weeks gestation then overcame overwhelming odds during the hours and days after her premature birth on Dec. 28, 2006.

From the time of her prenatal diagnosis through her birth at 36 weeks gestation, Anne Therese has been showered with prayers.

Those prayers by family members, friends and countless other people of faith who heard her story continued during complicated heart surgery a day later and throughout her struggle to breathe without a respirator.

The Sisters of Providence and Discalced Carmelite nuns of Terre Haute were among those who kept her in prayer daily—both before and after her birth—imploring God, through the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Theodora, to grant a miracle and save her life.

“She’s truly a miracle,” Paje Felts said of her tiny daughter. “She gets held a lot. She’s a special little baby. She always has a smile on her face. … Her surgeon said, ‘God has big plans for this little girl.’ ”

When Chris and Paje Felts learned about their baby’s rare tumor, the Felts family from Holy Spirit Parish in Indianapolis and the Etling family from St. Patrick Parish in Terre Haute immediately focused on prayer.

“We asked a lot of people for prayers,” Paje Felts said. “We knew that’s what was needed. We had to have that kind of network [of support].”

They believe God’s Providence led them to Dr. John Brown, a cardiothoracic surgeon who performed the

delicate five-hour operation to remove the baby’s tumor at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.

“The tumor went from one side of her chest to the other,” Paje Felts said. “It was huge. I knew God had led us to Dr. Brown and that he was the right surgeon.”

Chris Felts said he still marvels at the surgeon’s ability to repair his newborn daughter’s tiny heart, which was completely covered by the tumor.

Now, the only indication of Anne Therese’s surgery is a faint two-inch scar on her little chest.

“She’s a fighter,” Chris Felts explained as he held his daughter. “She made it past a couple of hurdles.”

Their 5-year-old twins, Patrick and Madeline, and

2-year-old Jacqueline love to help take care of Annie by getting diapers and blankets.

Chris and Paje Felts also are grateful to their obstetrician, Dr. Lillie-Mae Padilla, a high-risk pregnancy specialist who delivered their baby, and Dr. Timothy Cordes, a cardiologist who supervised Anne Therese’s medical care.

And they are thankful that Indiana University Medical Center, where their daughter was born, is adjacent to Riley Hospital, where her emergency surgery was performed and she received neonatal intensive care.

Dr. Brown explained in a telephone interview on Feb. 26 that he was surprised to see the size and complexity of the baby’s rare form of tumor.

“When I opened up the sac around her heart, I

couldn’t see the heart at all,” he said. “I could only see a huge tumor. I kept trying to move the tumor aside so I could see the heart and see how it was attached, but the size of the tumor made it prohibitive. Every time I tried to move the tumor aside enough to see where it was attached, the baby’s blood pressure would fall. The baby couldn’t tolerate it.”

One side of the teratoma was not attached to the heart so he decided to remove that half of the tumor first.

“It was a little bit of a bold move, but I thought there was no other way,” Brown said. “… As far as I know, there only have been about 45 or 46 of these reported in the medical literature. As far as we can tell, this was the largest tumor that has been described in any of those reports. It was at least twice, if not more than twice, the size of her heart.”

The surgeon said he also was surprised by how calm Chris and Paje Felts were as they talked with him before the operation.

“They had a tremendous amount of confidence even though they realized that we had a potentially fatal situation,” he recalled. “There was no way to keep the baby alive without removal of the tumor. They said, ‘We know that you will do your very best. We have all the confidence in the world in you.’ Their calmness is quite rare in parents of newborns. … [Paje] knows my daughter, but we didn’t know about that connection at the time.”

During 29 years as a surgeon at Riley Hospital, Brown said he has appreciated the spirit of cooperation and caring shown by the medical staff while caring for children with complex health problems.

“Riley is one of the most wonderful institutions in the country,” he said. “Everybody works as a team, a bit like

a symphony, and has a part to play toward getting the

children better. Because of that, things as a general rule turn out very well. ... I’m just one part of that symphony.”

Brown said he has written a report about Anne Therese Felts’ rare teratoma for publication in a medical journal.

That’s fine with Chris and Paje Felts, who are happy their youngest daughter has a miraculous story to share with the world.

They also believe St. Theodora had a hand in their baby’s successful surgery.

Paje, her three sisters and their mother, Patricia Etling, are graduates of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and have prayed to Mother Theodore Guérin for years.

Both Chris and Paje Felts are attorneys. They met at Holy Rosary Parish’s annual Italian Street Festival and were married on Dec. 28, 1995, at the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, where St. Theodora’s remains are preserved in a casket for veneration.

Her parents, John and Patricia Etling, have served the Church for several decades by administering Catholic Charities programs in Terre Haute.

“When the [Providence] sisters found out that this baby was in such trouble, they decided to pray night and day,” Patricia Etling said. “I had anybody I saw or knew praying for the baby. The sisters at the Carmelite monastery also prayed hard that this baby was going to be OK.

“Our faith and our prayers have sustained us throughout our life,” she said. “I prayed to St. Mother Theodore, ‘If you let this baby live, she will do great things in your name.’ … We had a lot of people praying very, very hard, and all the prayers were answered. First there were prayers of petition then prayers of thanksgiving.”

Nineteen members of the Felts and Etling families were present for the baby’s baptism at Indiana University Hospital minutes before she was taken to Riley Hospital

to be prepared for surgery. Family members placed a St. Theodora prayer card and religious medal in the incubator.

Little Anne Therese came through the surgery very well, but had trouble breathing without the respirator. Chris and Paje Felts spent their 11th wedding anniversary at the hospital praying for their baby’s survival.

His parents, Mark and Mary Jane Felts, also are grateful for the incredible amount of prayers offered for their granddaughter.

“We’ve had a lot of family support and a lot of prayers,” Mary Jane Felts said. “I started praying to St. Gerard [Majella] because he is the patron saint of mothers. I think I prayed to every martyr and saint known to the Catholic Church. And, of course, I prayed to the Blessed Mother to go to Jesus for us, and I prayed to our newest saint, St. Theodore Guérin.

“We are truly blessed and are very thankful to receive prayers from so many people, including many that we do not even know,” she said. “My husband and I were taught by the Sisters of Providence and they are very dear to us. I remember the sisters always saying, ‘Never underestimate the power of prayer.’ I thought about that every single day during the pregnancy and during the surgery. I think that was a lesson well taught. The doctors and nurses at Riley were so wonderful. It’s all just been miraculous.”

Providence Sister Marie Kevin Tighe, who was the

vice-postulator of St. Theodora’s cause, said she enjoyed seeing the baby during a recent visit at the motherhouse.

“It was wonderful to see this beautiful child looking so healthy and behaving so normally at her young age and seeming to have no health problems,” Sister Marie Kevin said. “It’s a joy to have another little Anne Therese named in honor of St. Mother Theodore. The whole family is so faith-filled. The Etlings have given so much of themselves to Catholic Charities, and I think God is blessing them for many reasons.

“… I’m eager to read the formal medical report about the baby,” she said. “We have received a number of reported favors since the canonization and are busy trying to document them all.”

Providence Sister Brendan Harvey, a close friend of the Etling family, said Anne Therese’s story is a reminder that God will provide for us if we ask for help.

“That’s what Providence is all about,” Sister Brendan said. “We got to see the baby and that helps us in our prayers, knowing that God is taking care of everybody.” †

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