- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 16, 2005

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.

“There’s never been anything like this at the hospital,” Mr. Torres says. “There are cases of women who are brain-dead giving birth; there are cases of someone with cancer giving birth, but never both.”

Mrs. Torres was diagnosed with melanoma at just 17, but doctors removed all cancerous lumps from her skin. She later developed a small nodule under her chest wall, but it was not considered an emergency.

Then, in early May, Mrs. Torres began having severe headaches. Her husband took her to a doctor who diagnosed her as being dehydrated. The night of May 7, she was still not feeling well. He brought her dinner in bed, then propped up the pillows behind her.

“I’m sorry for being such trouble,” she told him.

“No problem,” he said. “This is what husbands do.”

Suddenly, she slumped over. By the time an ambulance got her to the hospital, she had no brain function. Doctors performed emergency surgery to reduce the pressure on her brain caused by metastatic melanoma, a deadlier version of the cancer that struck her nine years earlier and spread to her brain, unbeknownst to anyone.

After two days at the hospital, doctors told Mr. Torres there was no hope for his wife. But doctors said they could keep Mrs. Torres alive until at least the end of July, when the child might have a chance at surviving outside the womb.

“Then I’d be nursing a premature child and a 2-year-old son alone,” says Mr. Torres, 26.

The situation is depressing, Mr. Torres says.

“I’ve had bad news for a while,” he says. “And I just get tired. All this stuff about closure and acceptance is crap. It’s just a choice you make to put one foot in front of the other.”

His woes are magnified by $300,000 to $400,000 in bills not covered by his insurance from his work. Some money has been donated through a Web site, www.susantorresfund.org, and through the Torres’ church, St. Rita’s Catholic Church in Alexandria. It costs $8,500 per day to keep Mrs. Torres alive, and the medical bill ultimately may reach $1 million.

The couple married May 11, 2002, after having met as students at the University of Dallas. He was Catholic and one of seven children. She was not. But on the night she converted in 2001, he proposed. They married in 2002, Peter was born in June 2003 and by the end of February, Mrs. Torres knew she was pregnant a second time.

“We hope to get her to 27 weeks minimum,” the doctor says. “At that point, we’ll have to decide whether it’s better to eke out another week in the ICU or try to deliver the baby. Thirty weeks would be better, but we don’t know how long we’ll have.”

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