Va. family grateful for ‘miracle’ child, now 3; preemie confounded doctors’ dire predictions
FREDRICKSBURG, Va. (Arlington Catholic Herald) - He’s known around the community of Holy Cross Academy in Fredericksburg as “the little miracle” and “a ray of hope,” but James Sherman, who fidgets in the pediatrician’s office as he awaits his checkup, can’t yet appreciate the meaning of those words.
SURVIVOR - The Sherman family (from left), Susan with James on her lap, Brendan, Caitlin and Tom, are grateful for their youngest son who was born prematurely and was hospitalized for more than two months. They credit the prayers and support of their school and parish community in Fredericksburg for the successful outcome. (Catholic Herald/Pauline Hovey)
As Tom Sherman relates their story in a private room at the pediatrician’s office surrounded by three of his four children, he doesn’t hesitate to attribute their blessings to the power of prayer.
“We had unbelievable support from day one from everybody,” said Sherman, a physical education teacher at Holy Cross where two of his children attend school. “Every morning the entire student body of about 500 children would pray for baby James.”
Many others prayed as well, including the family’s parish of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, Holy Cross parents, doctors and the baby’s pediatrician, Jiyeon Becker, and her family, whose three daughters also attend Holy Cross.
Although the Shermans had faced the anxiety surrounding a premature birth with their first child, Tommy — now 20, who weighed one pound more than James at birth and was born with cerebral palsy — this situation was dire.
A life-or-death delivery
After Tommy’s birth, because of Susan’s connective tissue disorder, the couple waited 10 years before having another child. Both Brendan, 10, and Caitlin, 8, were carried to full-term with no complications. So the couple felt more secure by the time James was conceived.
Still, the Shermans didn’t reveal Susan’s pregnancy, mostly out of consideration for the “milestones” happening in their children’s lives: Caitlin was starting kindergarten and Tommy was finishing high school.
“We were trying to think of how to not take away from their big moments,” Susan said. “We were afraid they would be overshadowed with the birth of another child.”
So, when Tom called the school Oct. 5, 2004, to let them know Susan had a baby and they needed prayers, everyone was surprised to learn she had been pregnant. After experiencing discomfort the previous night, Susan had awakened that morning bleeding uncontrollably. Tom sent the children to school, and called the rescue squad and their pastor, Father Stefan Starzynski. By the time the priest arrived at Mary Washington Hospital, Susan was delivering.
“Father and I were outside her room praying when the nurse came out and said she’d had a baby,” Sherman said. “When we asked what it was, the nurse said they hadn’t looked. We thought that was strange.”
The Shermans later learned the baby had been stillborn and needed to be resuscitated. And while doctors were trying to revive the baby, Susan was losing blood rapidly. During the emergency delivery, the doctor had nicked Susan’s femoral artery, adding to the loss of blood.
“Both Susan and the baby were touch and go, meaning between death and life,” Sherman explained.
But when Tom asked Father Starzynski if he would give them last rites, the priest said no, he preferred to baptize the baby and give Susan the sacrament of anointing of the sick. As he baptized James David — a name Tom had been inspired to choose in the moment — Father Starzynski looked up at Tom and said, “He’s going to be fine. I know he’s going to be fine.”
In the meantime, Susan remained where she was the rest of the day; the doctor was too concerned about the impact of moving her. Susan received 12 units of blood and was virtually “out of it” for 2 1/2 days. Meanwhile, Tom went back to work at Holy Cross, “mainly for the comfort level,” he said.
“The school jumped in right away,” Sherman said. The community helped with the children, prepared dinners for the family every night for almost three months — everything from pizza to homemade meals to catered dinners — and some even helped with yard work. Tom was especially touched by a spiritual bouquet the students made of two baskets of flowers with prayers for James and his family. Even doctors who were parents of children at Holy Cross would sneak over to see James while making their rounds at the hospital. “It was very touching,” Sherman said.
Death or brain damage expected
After 11 days, James was transported to Richmond, where he spent another 60 days until he came home Dec. 15, 2004. But for a while, the Shermans were uncertain whether he would survive.
James had been diagnosed as having a grade-three, bilateral brain bleed, which rose to a grade-four, a condition that usually means a baby would not likely survive, and if he did, he would be brain damaged.
“Coming back from Richmond that day felt like a 10-hour drive because they had basically given James a death sentence,” Sherman said.
The outcome didn’t look promising. Even Dr. Becker was anxious when the Shermans asked her to be James’ pediatrician because she was certain at some point she would have to tell them that their son had some type of disorder or brain damage.
“She just didn’t want to be the one to have to tell us,” Susan said. “And she told me that neither one of us really should have made it. It was a very humbling experience, realizing we were in dire straits, and then having this amazing outcome.”
Despite looking for delays in growth that usually occur in premature babies, Dr. Becker never found any. About one year after James’ birth, she wrote a letter to his family affirming her amazement at his development.
“When I see baby James in the office, I feel I can’t put into words how he uplifts and sustains me,” Dr. Becker wrote. “Baby James has affirmed the power of prayer for our family.”
On James’ first birthday, Susan brought him to Holy Cross Academy, along with 500 cupcakes, “so the children could witness the miracle that had taken place,” Susan said.
All the children wanted to touch him — this miracle child whose life confirmed the power of their prayers.
“Anybody who knows our story is amazed,” said Sherman. “Every day we can say this is a reflection of God’s power.”
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