How a baby born at 26 weeks became a light of faith to his family

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“The doctor said that, if I wanted to save my baby’s life, I had to give birth in the next hour. I was only 26 weeks pregnant,” Maria Ramos recalled with tears in her eyes the painful moment in which she thought she would lose her child Mateo. Her husband, Ricardo Luna, and their two children: Judith, 11, and Ricardo, 9; with watery eyes sat beside her, remembering the four months they had spent in the University of Colorado-Anschutz Hospital, seeing Mateo fight for his life in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

And yet, amid the scene of this suffering family, their tears were simultaneously mixed with smiles of joy and hope as they recounted the moments that had sustained them along their journey, such as the times Mateo smiled at the sound of his mother’s voice and looked around to find her, or those in which he was finally rocked to sleep after feeling his parents by his side.

“He was so little when he was born. He measured 11 inches and weighed 1 lb. 7 oz. Now he weighs 8 lb. 1 oz.,” Ricardo said with a grateful smile. “If he passes the oxygen test next week, he’ll go to Children’s Hospital to have a surgery to remove two hernias, and hopefully he’ll get to come home soon after that.”

Maria and Ricardo Luna Ramos spend time with their son Mateo, who was born at just 26 weeks. With the family’s prayers, Mateo continues to get stronger. (Photo by Aaron Lambert)

“Trusting in God has sustained us in these moments. My husband and I have talked about all of this, and our prayer has always been, ‘Lord, help us.’ And there has always been a light to keep us going,” said Maria, who with her husband and children is a parishioner at St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Aurora.

Everything began during a routine ultrasound Nov. 15, when the doctor told the couple something was wrong: The baby had not grown since the previous month. The doctor then asked Maria to be admitted in order to monitor her health and the baby’s.

“They said that it was because my placenta wasn’t sending enough oxygen to the baby,” Maria recalled.

The doctors had her count the times Mateo moved every hour, but one night, Maria knew something was wrong.

“I felt he was losing strength, he wasn’t moving as much, so I told my husband and the doctor I was scared,” Maria said. “That night my husband and I had a conversation and I told him, ‘My husband, we have to put ourselves in God’s hands. Our faith is being tested by God, but we will get through this.”

Maria had to give birth the following afternoon, on Nov. 18. It was the only chance of saving Mateo’s life.

“I entrusted my son to our Mother Mary that day, and I told her, ‘Mother Mary, my son can no longer be in my womb, but you can receive him in yours. Take care of him and protect him for me,” she said.

The following day, Ricardo and Maria received the sad news that Mateo’s lungs were bleeding. The doctors said they would try to do everything they could, but that he wasn’t doing well. One of the doctors and a nurse recommended that they call someone to baptize their child, if they were Catholic or Christian.

One of the nurses, who was also Catholic, even offered to help them contact a priest.

“We need to baptize him. He and we all need God and the Holy Spirit, and we can’t let anything happen to him without him being baptized,” Maria told her husband.

On that same day, Father Mauricio Bermudez from St. Michael’s Parish baptized Mateo.

The following months weren’t easy, as one day Ricardo and Maria would see their child improve and the next day worsen. Mateo was healthy except for his lungs. He was hooked up to an endotracheal tube to help him breathe and spent over two months in an incubator.

Besides the struggle of seeing their child fight for his life, the couple has  had to find creative ways to balance work, family and other responsibilities.

After work, Ricardo usually goes home to shower, eat dinner and see his wife and kids, and then heads over to the hospital, where he spends the evening, puts Mateo to sleep and leaves before midnight.

Maria takes the children to school in the morning and then heads straight to the hospital to be with Mateo. Later in the afternoon, she goes back home to cook for the family before they arrive from school or work and then takes care of her older children.

On the weekends, they go as a family to spend time in the hospital with Mateo, although his older siblings are not allowed to see him due to the age restriction at the NICU.

Ricardo Luna feeds his son Mateo while visiting him in the neonatal intensive care unit at University of Colorado-Anschutz Hospital March 17. Despite the challenges, Mateo’s family is grateful for the gift of his life. (Photo by Aaron Lambert)

Among the many ways this unexpected event has made the Luna family reflect, they feel as though the topic of abortion has taken on a different color.

“We went to Mass at St. Pius X Parish one Sunday and the priest invited all of us to go pray outside an abortion clinic,” Maria recounted.

“Later that day, looking at my son, I thought: ‘How is it possible that people can believe this human being doesn’t feel, only because he’s so little? Of course he feels! How can a mother allow someone to do that to their child? I couldn’t wrap my mind around it.

“I saw all the opposite: My child looked for me and smiled when I talked to him. He was so little and yet he was looking for my husband and me. He started doing that after he stopped being sedated, a month and a half after he was born.

“I saw that his size did not diminish his strong desire to live, and I think all babies in the womb have that same desire to live. If God is sending them, they are here for something good.”

Pedro and Maria Ramos, Maria’s brother and sister-in-law and also parishioners at St. Michael the Archangel Parish, became Mateo’s godparents for being the only family members present at the time Father Bermudez arrived to baptize the baby.

“He’s a miracle. Things like these increase our faith because we realize that, for God, nothing is impossible. When we saw him so little, we said, ‘Lord, only you know why he came into this world so little, but you also have the power to sustain him.’ And look at him, there he is,” Pedro said with a smile as he pointed to Mateo opening his little eyes for a photoshoot.

“It is an honor for me to be his godmother. He is truly a miracle. We must never lose our faith in God because he can truly act in our lives,” Pedro’s wife, Maria, added.

Beyond all their difficulties, Ricardo assured that he and his wife will love Mateo the same, even if he were to develop any type of defect from his premature birth.

“I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad child for a parent,” Maria concluded. “We have learned from this experience to live day by day, always giving thanks to God, because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. All we can do is strive to be better Christians, better spouses, and a better family.”

COMING UP: From Columbine to Christ: “Not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

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Every school day for almost two years, Jenica Thornby would spend her lunch hour in the library at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Every day, except April 20, 1999.

“I was sitting in my art class when all of the sudden I had this urge to leave school. I remember thinking, there is no way I am going to be talked into staying.”

Thornby found her friend that she always studied with and talked her into leaving too. As they drove away in a car her father had bought her just a week earlier, behind them they saw hundreds of other students running out of the school. Thinking it was maybe a fire drill, Thornby kept driving.

Back inside the school, two students had entered with guns, where they would kill 12 students and a teacher, and wound over 20 more people before taking their own lives.

In the days that followed, Thornby would learn that many of the casualties took place in the library, where on any other day she would have been sitting.

“I remember thinking, I always went to the library, and the only reason I wasn’t there was because I had this urge to leave. That was really hard to wrap my mind around, and so I really wondered, ‘What gave me that urge, why wasn’t I there?’”

Two decades later, Thornby is now Sister Mary Gianna, a religious sister of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, and on the 20th Anniversary of the Columbine massacre, she shared her story with the Denver Catholic of how God led her out of her high school that day, and through a series of events, led her into a deep relationship with Christ.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

SEARCHING FOR FULFILMENT

Sister Mary Gianna said growing up in Texas, California and then Colorado, she had loving parents, but as a family they did not practice any religion or faith.

After the school shooting, like many of her classmates, Sister Mary Gianna struggled coming to grips with what had happened. Coupled with emotional scars from bullying in her teenage years and other insecurities, she said she tried desperately just to fit in.

“I started drinking and going to parties, thinking if I was in a relationship, then I’ll be happy,” Sister Mary Gianna recalled. “I was searching for fulfilment.”

But near the end of her junior year a classmate of hers who seemingly had everything going for him committed suicide, and Sister Mary Gianna said her senior year she hit rock bottom.

“If he was in so much pain and suffering and took his life, what do I do with all my suffering and all my pain?” Sister Mary Gianna said she asked herself. “I thought I was going to take my own life by my 18th birthday.”

It was that year that a friend invited her to come to a youth group at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, where Sister Mary would meet a youth minister named Kate.

“I remember seeing something different in (Kate),” said Sister Mary Gianna. “She was so bright, so full of life. I could tell that she had something in her life that was missing in mine.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Kate and the youth group introduced her to a God that loved her, and that had a plan for her life.

“I felt like I was junk to be thrown away, and (Kate) would tell me you are made in God’s image and his likeness, and if God created you, how can you call yourself junk?” recalled Sister Mary Gianna. “I realized God did have a plan, and I love the words of St. Augustine: ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in God,” and I realized not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

RCIA, NET and DLJC

After high school graduation, with the support of her parents Sister Mary Gianna chose to attend Franciscan University of Steubenville, where her freshman year she went through RCIA and was received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2002.

After college, she spent a year with NET (National Evangelization Team), sharing her testimony with teenagers across the country. At the same time, through the encouragement of others, she began to consider religious life.

“I felt God wanted to use me to lead others to Christ as my youth minister had led me to Christ,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “And I felt God was calling me to share how he had worked in my life, my personal testimony.”

Sister Mary Gianna said words in a book by Father Benedict Groeschel really impacted her.

“He wrote, ‘Instead of asking God why something happened, ask him, what would you have me do?’” Sister Mary Gianna said. “So instead of reflecting on my life and why did this happen or that happen, I began to ask God, ‘What would you have me do?’”

In 2010, Jenica Thornby entered religious life as a member of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, was given the name Sister Mary Gianna, and last year on August 4, 2018, took her final vows. She now serves at The Ark and The Dove retreat center in Pittsburgh.

CHAIN REACTIONS

Standing in the center of the Columbine Memorial at Clement Park, Sister Mary Gianna is drawn to the plaque that remembers Rachel Joy Scott.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

Rachel was one of the first students shot on April 20, 1999, and after being wounded, one of the gunmen reportedly asked her if she still believed in God, to which Rachel replied, “You know I do,” before the gunman shot her in the head.

“Unfortunately the two boys talked about how they wanted to start a chain reaction of death and violence and destruction,” Sister Mary Gianna said. “However, Rachel had a theory that if one person could go out of their way and show compassion and kindness, we would never know how far it would go, it just might start its own chain reaction.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s story has become an inspiration to her, and coincidently, Rachel’s family played a role in her own conversion. Sister Mary Gianna said the day after the shooting she was at a friend’s house and her friend’s mom told Rachel’s aunt about how she had left just before the shooting began. Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s aunt replied, “God must have a plan for your life.”

It was one of the first seeds planted in Sister Mary Gianna’s heart, that started to grow, and as Sister Mary Gianna continued to say ‘yes’ to God, led her to the life she has today.

“Even when I didn’t know God that day at Columbine, he led me out of school, he protected me,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “He loved me so much that he drew near to me and has shown me this path of life.”

“Even in the midst of tragedy, God can bring good, God could bring life out of death. The worst tragedy was Jesus being put to death on the Cross, and it led to our salvation. And even in the midst of this tragedy of Columbine, God could bring good.”