Great art Thou, O Lord, and marvelous are Thy works; no words suffice to hymn Thy wonders. (Prayer at the Great Blessing of the Waters) Even in these days of weak faith and still weaker ascesis, God condescends in His mercy to manifest His love for us, often acting through His saints to work miracles. Even if we ourselves do not experience these miracles, hearing about them is enough to warm our hearts and inspire a stronger faith.
miracle of Saint John of Rila
"O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth" -- how I prayed these words, seeking comfort, wanting to know what was going to happen. A routine prenatal ultrasound had revealed that our baby had some congenital abnormality, which proved to be spina bifida. This, of course, brought my husband Peter and me great grief and many questions, both spiritual and medical: Did this happen because of our sins? Would our child be able to walk or would he spend his life in a wheelchair? Would he have severe brain abnormalities? Would we have the spiritual strength for this? I struggled to sincerely pray that God's will be done, instead of my will, because I wanted to wake up from this bad dream--the secret fear of every pregnant woman come true---that something is wrong with her baby.
Throughout the remainder of my pregnancy we prayed to God and His saints, especially to the Most Holy Theotokos, to Saint John, Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco, and to Saint Symeon, the God-receiver and protector of children, in whose honor we had decided to name the child. (He had so many ultrasounds done even we could tell that he was a little boy.) The "Prayers of a Woman with Child" helped us focus on the spiritual health of our child, not just his physical well-being. We received much consolation and support from our priest, Fr. Gregory Naumenko, our parish family, as well as from our families and friends. A particular comfort was the visit of the wonderworking Kursk Root Icon to our parish and our home. And so, through the prayers of His Most Holy Mother, His saints and of so many people, the Lord has been most merciful to us and to our child, Symeon.
Spina bifida, meaning "spine split in two," occurs in the first month of pregnancy. Sometimes because of a lack of folic acid (take 400 mg of folic acid daily and eat your green, leafy vegetables, ladies!), sometimes because of genetics (among Irish and Welsh there is a higher incidence of having babies with spina biffda), and sometimes just because, the developing brain and spinal cord of the infant do not form properly. Bone and muscle do not form around the spinal cord, so the baby is born with a sac containing the spinal cord and nerves protruding from his back. The severity of the child's handicap, to a large extent, depends where along the spinal cord the defect lies. A hole at the base of the spine will affect bladder and bowel control, and usually cause loss of strength and sensation in the feet and ankles; the further up the spine the defect occurs, the less use of his legs the child will have. As soon as possible after birth, it is imperative to give the child antibiotics to prevent devastating infections such as meningitis, and to have the defect surgically repaired to avoid trauma to the exposed nerves, which would cause further loss of sensation and mobility.
We traveled from Rochester to have Symeon delivered in Syracuse so a pediatric neurosurgeon, Dr. Jeffrey Winfield, could perform the surgeries Symeon would require to live. Because we did not know how stable he would be medically, Peter baptized Symeon minutes after he was born by sprinkling him with holy water (Fr. Gregory would complete the service of baptism and chrismate him when we returned home). With this first step of his spiritual birth accomplished, Symeon, less than 24 hours old, underwent the operation to close the hole in his back. We knew many prayers had been answered when, in the intensive care nursery, little Sima kept crawling out of the sling in which he had been suspended to keep his back clean. He had great movement in his legs, he could even move his toes!
The other immediate medical concern was hydrocephalus, a condition, frequently occurring with spina biffda, in which the cerebro-spinal fluid isn't properly re-absorbed by the brain but collects and causes pressure on the brain. If untreated, brain damage results: retardation, blindness and eventually death. During his first week, Symeon's head circumference was steadily increasing, so the neurosurgeon put in a shunt to drain the excess cerebrospinal fluid from his brain to his abdomen.
When Symeon was eleven days old we came home to Rochester. Busy keeping his dressings on, his incisions clean and dry, adjusting to life with four boys, we didn't pay much attention to the little squeaking sounds Sima sometimes made while nursing. Sometimes he would make them when being held upright, then sometimes he would squeak in his sleep. Insidiously the squeaking increased, until we realized that he was now squeaking most of the time, with only a few quiet periods. Symeon was churched on Holy and Great Saturday, and together we celebrated the Joyous Feast of Pascha. But on the evening of Bright Tuesday, finally convinced that something was wrong and that it wasn't going to get better on its own, we took him to a local Rochester hospital.
On examination the doctors found that Symeon had vocal cord paralysis, with only a two millimeter space for him to breathe. His cords were paralyzed together, so they were in position for Sima to coo and cry, but they didn't move back apart for him to inhale, hence the squeaking. He was really having to work very hard to breathe and spending all his energy doing it. (We didn't realize it at the time, but looking later at photographs of him, we saw a tired, thin little baby.) Symeon needed a tracheostomy, a hole in his windpipe below his vocal cords, to allow him to breathe without struggle.
The doctors thought that Symcon's problems were due to a brain malformation commonly associated with spina bifida. This "Chiari' malformation can cause the base of the brain to slip down into the spinal canal, stretching the nerves which control respiration and swallowing. They expected to perform brain surgery to relieve the pressure on Symeon's cerebellum in hopes of restoring movement to his vocal cords and avoiding any further neurological deterioration. On Bright Friday Sima had a tracheostomy. On Monday, an MRI scan showed that his cerebellum seemed to be in place, glory be to God, thus he didn't need decompression surgery. The doctors never did establish why the vocal cord paralysis occurred, nor what to do about it. A shunt malfunction can be the source of many problems, but Symeon's shunt was working fine. If it wasn't the Chiari maiformation, then what was it?
This was all very scary and sad, both faith-troubling and faith-building. Why did this happen? I knew to be on the lookout for the problems that children with spina biffda often have as they grow, but we had barely gotten home from Syracuse. I couldn't understand why, after the wondrous outcomes of Sima's birth and surgeries, why was this happening, now, so soon? The Mother of God and St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco had been such effective intercessors for Symeon before -- why did they appear to be no longer helping?
God, in His infinite wisdom, knows best. There are probably infinite reasons, spiritually, for what happened, but I will relate a few lessons I have gleaned. I should have called upon "Thou Who art everywhere present and fillest all things." Instead, my first and sustained reaction to all that was happening was that I wanted to go back to Syracuse, to the hospital where everything came out well, to our neurosurgeon who fixed everything before. If my reaction wasn't just wanting to run away from my problems, then it was an almost superstitious veneration of place--not just a reasoned, informed decision based on how much experience a surgeon has in these types of cases. It had certainly been a divinely-inspired decision to go there in the first place, but God wants us to look to Him in all our decisions and all our cares. He didn't want us running back to Syracuse, for help from "princes, from the sons of men," when salvation, true help and healing comes from God, wherever and whenever He decides it to be.
Closely linked with this was my need for humility and patience. I knew that God was in charge but I still wanted to be in control, or at least have an idea what the plan is. A great temptation for me is to focus on the material, physical nature of medical problems, and to expect to find doctors who know what to do, to get things fixed in the right place, at the right time and by the right person. But even the most brilliant physician's understanding of physiology and pathology is woefully imperfect compared to that of the Creator's. "Be still, and know that I am God" -- stay in Rochester because of the fresh tracheostomy. "Be still and know that I am God"-- none of the neurosurgeons -- not local, nor in Syracuse, nor in Buffalo, nor their mentors scattered across the country -- knew why Symeon was having this problem. We had to be still physically and mentally, before we could hope to have any sort of spiritual stillness to perceive what God wanted us to do.
There were other lessons. One incident demonstrated the spirit world's (evil, in this case) effect on the physical world. This was not a new idea to met I had read of many instances in the lives of the saints in which demons were responsible for some physical afflictions, but intellectual knowledge of the concept pales beside one's own experience. For less than 24 hours Sima shared his hospital room with a little boy who had been admitted because he had been having seizures. Just while this little boy was his roommate Symeon had a seizure. He had never had any before, and - thank God and His saints - has not had any since. It was as though the evil spirit tormenting that baby (and his parents) decided to come to our side of the room. God was chastening me for my sin of pride. For I had sighed a pharisaic "Thank God, 1 don't have to deal with seizures" sigh of relief to myself when I learned of the baby's problems, when I should have felt compassion and commiseration for that family.
Our family's life was now disrupted and complicated by Symeon's tracheostomy. Care of an infant with a tracheostomy is stressful and time consuming. Peter and I quickly learned "trach care" - how to clean the area, how to suction respiratory secretions so his tube wouldn't plug, how to change the ties holding the tube in place, what precautions to take during feeding and bathing - and Symeon was able to come home ten days after having his tracheotomy. But there were always the fears that he would catch a cold (which is much more serious with a trach) or that he would spit up into his tube, which allows direct access to the lungs. Plus, Symeon now required an apnea monitor with all its wires and flashing lights and ear-piercing alarm throughout the night or whenever we weren't in the room with him, to alert us if his trach tube plugged and he couldn't breathe. Since the trach tube bypasses the nose and its natural humidifying of inhaled air, we had to monitor that he wasn't becoming dehydrated. To prevent dehydration Sima needed almost continual misting by a compressor via tubing connected to a collar around his neck. Then there was the suction machine and catheters. As you can imagine, traveling with all this equipment, in addition to the usual baby paraphernalia, was quite a production. Even going to church was not a simple matter.
We began to get used to our "bionic baby." Symeon did really well with the trach and began to get chubby since he no longer had to spend all his energy trying to breathe. But there was a serious complication. The tube bypassed his vocal cords thus Sima could no longer vocalize--no cooing and no crying. I was very concerned about what effect this would have on his speech development since he could no longer babble and hear the sounds he was producing. I asked to talk with a speech therapist about preserving and developing Symeon's speech under the circumstances. (At a month and a half old he was probably her record youngest consult.) In her folder of materials I spied a brochure about speaking valves, which she reluctantly gave me.
This was the answer! The speaking valve placed on the tracheostomy tube allows the patient to inhale through the tube but then shuts, so he is forced to exhale around the tube, past the vocal cords, and out the mouth and nose. I called the company which manufactures the valves. I requested reprints of medical literature for me, and for the ear, nose and throat specialist. I spoke with his nurse. But the earliest that the ENT doctor would consider allowing me to try a speaking valve with Symeon would be in a month, and he even then was not too optimistic. But I kept my hopes on it; God allows as this technology and other inventions to ease our physical infirmities and through them to show mercy to others. Even though it could only be used a few hours a day, I was ecstatic about this remedy for Symeon's muteness. Symeon, however, didn't like his speaking valve one bit: it was a lot of work to push the air out around the tube and through that tiny space between his paralyzed vocal cords. He would fuss and cough and blow the speaking valve off and across the room, much to the amusement of his brothers and much to my dismay. The speaking valve was not going too well.
Shortly after getting the speaking valve, Sima and I took our first day trip with the tracheostomy. It was to Jordanville for Holy Trinity Seminary commencement. i had wanted to hear the speaker, Frank Schaeffer, and when Matushka Mary Naumenko and her mother invited me to go with them, Peter gave his husbandly blessing. So I packed our bags, and the suction machine, and the compressor, and he apnea monitor, and everything except the speaking valve -- this was one baby who was not going to wail during graduation exercises. Arriving at the monastery I stopped at the monastery bookstore. There I talked with Hieromonk Roman, who, salesman par excellence, recommended several books. By the time I left the bookstore with my stack of books, suctioned Symeon, changed Symeon, fed Symeon, changed Symeon, suctioned Symeon, I had missed all but the closing words of Frank Schaeffer's commencement address. Matushka, though, had videotaped it for later viewing, we later met Mr. Schaeffer, and Sima didn't fret, so on several counts ; considered the outing successful. I didn't realize that it was providential as well.
Several days later I picked up one of the books I had just gotten at the monastery, entitled Saints to Whom the Lord Has Given Special Grace to Heal Illnesses and to Render Aid for Other Needs (in Russian). At this point I must mention that eight or nine years ago I had read the life of the Bulgarian saint, St. John of Rila. One of the greatest luminaries of Bulgaria, whose place in Bulgarian church and civil history is comparable to that of St. Sergius of Radonezh in Russia, St. John of Rila's veneration spread far beyond the borders of his native land. St. John of Kronstadt was named in honor of St. John of Rila. The church in Utica, New York -- my husband's childhood parish -- was dedicated to St. John of Rila in memory of Fr. John of Kronstadt until the latter was formally glorified as a saint. The account I had of St. John of Rila's life was a simplified version for children in Russian, and I figured that "if I can read it, then I can translate it." Pretty vainglorious of me. That effort soon foundered and was apparently swallowed by one of my horrible stacks of papers; I hadn't seen it for years. So leafing through this little book my heart stood still when I read the name of St. John of Rila -- the only saint listed for the healing of muteness.
My thoughts immediately flew to the unfinished translation. I reread the page, then put the book down. This was why the Mother of God and St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco appeared not to intercede for us. St. John of Rila was the person who could help us, and I had offended him. I was horrified at what I had brought on us, but I didn't immediately ask forgiveness of St. John for having ignored him so long. I didn't tell Peter of my discovery. I just kept trying the speaking valve. But Symeon was not doing any better with it. Nor could the speaking valve restore the paralyzed vocal cords, but merely temporarily lessen some of the complications, and our baby would still have a tracheostomy. A few days later I picked up the book and read that section once again. Just being sorry was not enough -- I had to repent. The only way for Symeon to get better was for me to confess my fault and do something about the translation of the life of St. John of Rila. I recounted to Peter my discovery and he said, "Sounds like you had better start working on that translation." When I told Fr. Gregory he said, "sounds like you had better start working on that translation." He added, "And you can write about Symeon and his miracle."
So, begging forgiveness and intercession from St. John of Rila, I started retranslating his life (and began to recall some of the technical reasons I had bogged down before). But my initial attempt failed because I had wanted to translate his life out of vanity and pride, not out of love for the Saint. However, as we read in this excerpt from his life, the holy hermit didn't bear malice.
The king of Hungary attacked Bulgaria. Having captured the city of Sofia, he entered the Church of St. John of Rila and made a prostration before his incorrupt body. The king had heard much about the great miracles which occurred at the grave of the holy one. The king ordered that the wondrous relics be taken and placed in the church in the city of Esztergom. The archbishop of Esztergom didn't want to believe that the Bulgarian saint was great before God and worked innumerable miracles. He said, "The ancient books make no mention of such a wonderworker." He didn't want to go venerate the holy relics. And God punished him the archbishop was suddenly struck dumb. Realizing that he had sinned by not acknowledging the holiness of the great God-pleaser, the archbishop hurried t the relics of the saint. With tears of repentance he fell down in front of the reliquary where the much-healing relics of the saint lay. Remaining as meek after his repose as he was during his life, the holy hermit didn't bear malice. St. John immediately harkened to the tearful prayers of the archbishop, and the latter began to speak clearly. After his healing he began with tears to tell pious and godly people about his sin against the saint and about the miracle which had occurred; he began to praise the Lord and His great saint.
Once again, the holy hermit didn't bear malice. As I was working on the translation, and as time came closer to have his vocal cords checked, Symeon seemed able to tolerate the speaking valve more and more. Our baby's voice! He appeared surprised by it and I felt like there was a ventriloquist in the house. Finally came the day for the doctor to look at Symeon's vocal cords, a day I was both anticipating and dreading: the translation of St. John's life was not completed. I had a rough draft done but it still needed serious work. With much prayer we went to the doctor's. When the doctor examined Sima's cords he was visibly startled, "His vocal cords are moving!"
Wanting to make sure this was a permanent recovery, the doctor decided that the trace tube should stay in place for now. In a month he would put in a smaller size tube so Symeon would breathe more through his nose and mouth; if that went well then the tube could be removed entirely. In the meantime we should use the speaking valve as much as possible. But after a couple of weeks Sima's speaking valve again became difficult for him to use, and when he had the smaller tube put in he couldn't breathe easily. A growth of scar tissue was suspected -- permanent removal of the trach tube had to be delayed until that was surgically excised. Another month, another surgery to worry about. Time for patience, time for prayer, more time to polish the translation of St. John's life.
During this time, Archbishop Laurus and pilgrims to the Balkans were at the Monastery of St. John of Rila in Bulgaria and prayed at his holy relics. Rassophore monk John kindly' brought back an icon of the saint and cotton that had been placed on his relics as a blessing for Symeon. God is the Treasury of good gifts and Giver of Life; through the prayers of St. John of Rila, the surgery was successful and Symeon had his tracheostomy tube removed. He is well to this day.
"Come and abide in us, and cleanse us of all impurity, and save our souls, O Good One!"
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