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Brain-dead mother lives for unborn child
On the second floor of the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, a 26-year-old woman is battling for a life.
The life is not hers — on May 7, Susan Torres’ brain suddenly ceased to function, to the horror of her husband, Jason Torres, and the medics who rushed to their Alexandria home to try to save her.
Mrs. Torres is now brain-dead as a result of a massive brain hemorrhage that overtook her that night. She also has cancer.
The life everyone is trying to save is that of an unborn child, now in its 20th week of gestation. Mr. Torres says he thinks it’s a girl.
“We’re battling around whether to name her or not,” he says, stroking his wife’s still arms as she lies in the intensive-care unit (ICU). Doctors had told him there was no hope, medically, for his wife to recover. But they could keep her alive for the child.
“So I decided we’d try,” he said. “I think Susan would’ve walked through hell to give that child a chance.”
In a room right by the ICU nurses’ station, Mrs. Torres lies silent, hooked up to food and oxygen tubes. Her blond hair is spread out on a pillow, and pink and green blankets cover her. A rosary is wrapped around her left hand. A scapular — a religious badge worn by devout Catholics — is tied around her right wrist.
“Fortunately, a lot of friends are saying a lot of prayers for her,” says her physician, Arlington internist Dr. Chris McManus, also a Roman Catholic.
“We’re doing her breathing for her, and her heart is still good. The focus is on taking care of any infections that come up. There’s a lot of bridges to cross with her. But with technology, we can keep the body alive. How long, we cannot say.”
Religious paintings and icons are scattered about the room. Next to the window are two reclining chairs on which Mr. Torres spends the night. He spends about 12 hours at his wife’s side, then goes home for a few hours to see the couple’s 2-year-old son, Peter.
“He knows she’s not around,” Mr. Torres says. “He’s too young to come into the room. Either he wouldn’t recognize her, or he’d recognize her, and that’d be worse. It’d upset him terribly.”
If the cancer does not spread rapidly, there’s hope. But if it becomes especially virulent, it can shut down Mrs. Torres’ body or enter the womb. Or cause a spontaneous abortion. The cancer cannot be treated with radiation because the treatment would kill the child. The earliest doctors think the child can survive outside the womb is 25 weeks, which is mid-July.
“You have to do things, [where] you don’t know the effect on the child, to keep the body alive,” Mr. Torres says. “They were giving her blood-pressure medicine to raise her blood pressure, but they’ve stopped it now because the child could go through cardiac arrest.
“There’s no assurance we’ll get to 25 weeks. There’s no assurance after she’s born that she’ll survive. But the ultrasounds and sonograms show a normal pregnancy. The kid seems pretty feisty. During the first sonogram, the kid was moving its arms and legs as if to say, ‘Get the heck out of here.’ ”
Catholic doctrine emphasizes doing everything possible to save the life of the unborn as well as the mother. An Italian doctor, Gianna Beretta Molla, who died in 1962 at the age of 39 after refusing treatment for an ovarian cyst because it would harm her unborn daughter, was declared a saint last year.
By Donald Lambro
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