MILWAUKEE, Wis. (Catholic Herald) - Some 17 months ago, Pope John Paul II lay in a Roman hospital suffering septic shock and heart failure brought on by a urinary tract infection.
Half a world away, Sydney Claire Smith, 14 months, lay in Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin battling the identical illness. Her kidneys and liver shut down and her heart stopped twice for a total of 36 minutes, as the infection that began in her urinary tract ravaged her tiny body.
Her parents, Jillian and Shannon Smith, stood by helplessly as their once healthy infant was on the brink of death. As they prayed and kept vigil at their daughter’s side, the television news alternated coverage of the final hours of Terry Schiavo’s life after she was removed from a feeding tube and the pontiff whose body succumbed to the infection on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 2.
Shannon and Jillian wondered whether the television was offering glimpses of their daughter’s future. Doctors warned the young couple, members of Nativity of the Lord Parish, Cudahy, that the Sydney they knew was gone.
If she survived - and doctors couldn’t guarantee that - Sydney might not be able to sit up, feed herself or even be aware of her surroundings, recalled Jillian, 33, in an interview at the family’s south side home.
During their ordeal, the Smiths even sought counsel from their pastor, Father Phil Reifenberg, on what to do if Syndey faced a life connected to a feeding tube.
Sydney’s Angel Army forms
It was a decision they never had to make. That same girl, now 21⁄2, is a big Dora the Explorer fan who likes to playfully terrorize her 8-month-old sister, Zoe Kate, and squeals, “Daddy home,” as her ears perk up when she hears the car horn sound. She’s the Pledge Child for Briggs and Al’s Run & Walk to benefit Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.
Sydney’s Angel Army, comprised of the Smiths, Jillian’s parents, Janet and former Milwaukee County court commissioner, Tony Machi, and a host of family and friends, participated in the run through downtown Milwaukee.
Being involved in the event is a way of saying thanks for the Smiths who believe their daughter survived because of the persistence and skill of the medical team at Children’s Hospital, but also due to the thousands of prayers said by people around the country.
The Smiths feel an especially close bond to the late pontiff who lost his battle with the same type of infection.
Journey begins during Holy Week
Sydney’s saga began on Tuesday of Holy Week in 2005 when her concerned parents took her to Children’s Hospital after her fever, double ear infection and urinary tract infection weren’t improving.
At the hospital, her condition deteriorated rapidly. As doctors tried to determine the cause of the problems, the girl, whose only health concerns to that point were glaucoma, which was diagnosed at 8 months of age, and recurrent urinary tract infections, went into cardiogenic shock. Her heart stopped for 11 minutes, but doctors got it going. Later, it stopped for 25 minutes before the persistent medical team could bring it back.
A roomful of friends and relatives of the Smith family, including Sisters of St. Joan Antida Marie Louise Balistrieri and Betty Steiner, who ran Guardian Angel Day Care that Sydney attended, huddled in a nearby waiting room praying.
In a last-ditch effort to save the girl, doctors connected her to a heart-lung bypass machine, ECMO, (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation).
Initially, there was no improvement. Father Reifenberg was summoned and, using oils blessed in the Holy Land given to the Smiths by a family of another sick infant, conferred the sacrament of the anointing of the sick.
“At this point, we also became acquainted with Padre Pio,” recalled Jillian describing how a cousin gave her a biography of the 20th century Italian priest who bore the stigmata - the bleeding wounds of Christ - and who was canonized June 16, 2002. “He (and Pope John Paul II) became a sort of prayer focus for us.”
More than coincidence
At the end of the week, Sydney’s kidneys - which had been on dialysis - showed signs of working on their own.
The next day, Pope John Paul II died.
To the Smith family, it’s more than a coincidence.
“The pope died the next day. We have, in the months and year since, hypothesized on more than one occasion that maybe he did have a little something to do (with Sydney’s recovery),” said Jillian, a legal assistant at Mueller, Goss and Possi. “What killed him is what she had, a septic infection from a urinary tract infection. The timing of it is really a goose bump moment.”
Once Sydney began recovering, she progressed rapidly. In fact, the Smiths kept track of the “daily miracles” in a log book. It documents things like drinking from a cup, movement in her arms and legs and making sounds.
On April 8, Sydney’s grandmother, Janet Machi was the first to see perhaps the most exciting miracle for the family. As Machi recited a rhyme and tickled Sydney, Sydney smiled and responded for the first time.
About five weeks after her cardiac arrests, Sydney was able to go home. While she could barely lift her head on her own, she could swallow. She had suffered a small stroke and massive brain damage because her brain was deprived of oxygen.
In the months that have followed - through extensive therapy three times a week - Sydney has learned to crawl and is starting to use a walker. She’s as bright as ever, noted her father, but her physical abilities are behind for a child her age.
She’s become a mini-celebrity in her parish, according to Jillian, and even was the inspiration for Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan’s Good Shepherd Sunday homily at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist last year.
The archbishop, after visiting Sydney at the hospital the day before Good Shepherd Sunday, described the little girl and how the people tending to her, including Jillian and Jillian’s cousin, Jeannine, shepherd each other on God’s behalf.
Father Reifenberg has also written about the Smiths in his parish bulletin.
“Now I don’t know how much of Sydney’s amazing comeback to attribute to the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, the use of oils blessed in the Holy Land, the persistence of the sisters from day care, the archbishop’s blessing, the power of family prayer, the indomitable love of her parents, or simply the grace of God in the guise of all these wonderful forms,” he wrote last year, describing her story as a “powerful testimony to the Easter mystery at work in our midst.”
With the help of Father Reifenberg, the Smiths raised more than $8,000 last year for Children’s Hospital - more than $2,000 of that from Nativity of the Lord parishioners - and hope to double their total this year.
Volunteering is way to say ‘thanks
Thankful to have his daughter back, Shannon said the many charitable outreach efforts the family has made in the last year, including volunteer work at their parish, fund raising for Children’s Hospital and the Ronald McDonald House where his parents from North Carolina stayed at no cost last year, are a thank you for blessings they received. He and his brother-in-law, Paul Conigliaro, have produced a DVD that tells Sydney’s story. He is using it to raise funds for Children’s Hospital.
“Our actions are based on our faith … and maybe (Sydney’s) just a good excuse,” said Shannon, 36, a financial advisor for Morgan Stanley.
Raised a Baptist in North Carolina, Shannon joined the Catholic Church through the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) in 1999, shortly before he and Jillian were married at St. Robert Parish, Shorewood. The couple had met in Atlanta, moved to Texas and Phoenix before returning to Milwaukee, Jillian’s hometown, after Sept. 11.
Faith helped couple cope
While somewhat new to Catholicism, Shannon said he never experienced such crippling grief as he did when Sydney was ill.
“I had never struggled with that kind of grief and its spiritual implications. I’d been fortunate; my grandparents are all alive and I had never experienced death and its finality,” he said, noting his faith made the experience easier. “I credit my faith with my ability to cope with it as best as I could.”
Jillian, a lifelong Catholic, described her faith as “the crutch, shoulder to cry on - figuratively and literally - wailing wall, spiritual focus” through Syndey’s illness and recovery.
The Smiths know Sydney’s recovery is ongoing and that she’ll face more challenges. One way they are preparing her for them is by teaching their faith to their girls.
Hanging on Sydney’s bedroom wall is a cluster of holy cards they call “Sydney’s guys.” Pictured are Pope John Paul II, Padre Pio, Mother Teresa, St. Lucy, a guardian angel and a photo of Chase Carpenter, the son of the family who gave the Smiths the blessed oil. Chase died last November at age 8 months.
When looking to Sydney’s future, Shannon said he is reminded of a question one of his grandfathers asked the other, “Who are you to deny the boy hardship?”
“I don’t have to deny Sydney hardship,” said Shannon. “She will have it. My job is to help her to find the strength to deal with it,” he said, adding his hope is to help her become anything she wants to be.
When people empathize with Shannon, telling him how hard the family’s ordeal has been, he instead prefers not to look back.
“I have my daughter back; for all intents and purposes, I have my daughter back. I have her sitting in my lap when we go to church every Sunday and I just thank God, she’s there … and when Father Phil’s sermon goes on a little too long, she chimes in with an ‘amen.’
Jillian, too, refuses to dwell on what their daughter has lost through her illness. In an online journal last November, she wrote, “Leave it to Sydney to show us that the miracles are unending and that her recovery journey is nowhere near complete. As I pray to Padre Pio and Pope John Paul each night when I ask for their continued intercession on her behalf, we rest confident in the knowledge that Sydney will be fully restored and be a shining example of God’s miraculous healing power here on Earth.”
This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of the Catholic Herald (www.chnonline.org),official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Wis.