As adopted daughter awaits new heart, family prays for miracle

Nobody believed Liu Fang, born with half a heart and abandoned in a village west of Beijing, would survive long after being adopted by a Baltimore County family. Even the Bartlinskis, deeply religious Catholics, expected the girl's lungs would fail even if her heart could be repaired.

Two years later, as the 5-year-old girl awaits a cardiac transplant, her parents, a Catonsville school and the family's parish are literally praying for a miracle. She is awaiting the procedure at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. The call could come any day.

If the girl, who now goes by Teresa, is strong enough to survive the surgery, her parents will ask the Roman Catholic Church to proclaim her healing a miracle to be used toward the declaration of sainthood for the late Pope John Paul II.

If a miracle occurs — it would apparently be one of just five investigated by the Archdiocese of Baltimore in 200 years — the incident would involve an inexplicable healing of her lungs. The Bartlinskis are working with church officials to document the medical and spiritual evidence, including morning prayers by the children at St. Mark School.

Her mother Ann Bartlinski said the family has been overwhelmed by the generosity of their community.

"We knew how sick she was," she said. "We did not want her to die as an orphan in China. We wanted her to know the love of a family.

"But once you bring her home, you want to do everything you can to help her. We've always said it's God's will. If that's God's will, to take her home to heaven, then that's God's will. We're prepared either way. God is good all the time."

Praying for help

Bartlinski said doctors across the country and four hospitals refused to consider Teresa for the heart transplant because her condition had caused significant damage to her lungs, making a recovery unlikely. She was diagnosed with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a birth defect that prevents the left side of a child's heart from developing.

Dr. Joseph Rossano, medical director for heart transplantation at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said Teresa's heart condition is terminal, qualifying her for the highest urgency status for a heart donation. Despite the damage to her lungs, Rossano said the heart transplant is her best chance.

"It's a high risk procedure," Rossano said. "We're hoping it is going to offer her a longer life and a better quality of life than she has currently.

"This is really the only treatment option she has available."

Rossano took Teresa's case after several doctors reviewed her medical records, the Bartlinskis said. Her parents came away with the conclusion that her survival would take an act of God, because they were told she wouldn't live through a simultaneous heart and lung transplant.

On a recent day, the child — named for Mother Teresa, the late Catholic nun and Nobel Peace Prize recipient — finished stacking wooden blocks on the dining room table and bounded into the living room to play with her sisters. An oxygen line trailing behind her allows her to breathe, but leaves enough slack for her to move around the house. She'll turn 6 on Christmas Day.

She's one of five special needs daughters Ann and Ed Bartlinski have adopted from China since 2004. The girls join the couple's four biological children, three sons and a daughter. The couple said they've cashed in their retirement funds, exhausted their savings and gone into debt to bring the girls home, spending as much as $40,000 on each adoption.

Ed Bartlinski, a Pasadena-based chiropractor, said he also traded his four-day work weeks for six-day stretches. Ann Bartlinski stays home with the children.

The family relies on financial help from their church, St. Mark in Catonsville, and donations from strangers, including contributions from an organization, "Believe in Miracles," that a family friend recently founded to help pay for Teresa's medical bills. In addition to expenses covered by insurance, the family has out-of-pocket co-pays and deductibles to meet, Ann Bartlinski said.

They're also getting support of the spiritual kind. The children at St. Mark School have prayed for Teresa's healing every morning for two years.

The family made up prayer cards that ask specifically for the specific intercession of the late pope, who was beatified after the Vatican declared that a French nun had been cured of Parkinson's disease with his intervention. For Blessed John Paul II (as he is now known) to be named a saint, at least one more miracle must be ascribed to him.

The family chose to appeal to the late pope out of respect for his service to the worldwide community, along with their shared Polish ancestry.

"Could a little girl in Catonsville be the beneficiary of a miracle? Sure — just as there have been so many others in so many other distant parts of the world," said the Rev. Christopher J. Whatley, the family's pastor at St. Mark Church. The church and school are affiliated.

Documenting a miracle

The Catholic church's process of declaring a miracle — an instantaneous occurrence that cannot be explained by science — is a rigorous investigation of scientific and spiritual evidence, including medical documentation, such as X-rays and testimony from doctors.

Diane Barr, chancellor for the Archdiocese of Baltimore and a civil and canon lawyer, said any possible miracle must be investigated by local church authorities and then submitted to the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

The process is veiled and the results of the investigation are not public, Barr said, so the diocese would not weigh in the case involving the Bartlinskis' daughter.

One of the two miracles investigated by the diocese in the last decade, believed to be among only five in the last 200 years, involved the Rev. Ronald P. Pytel, who was deemed by the church to have been cured of heart disease through his prayer to St. Faustina, a Polish nun who died in 1938.

Pytel, the longtime pastor of the Holy Rosary Church in Fells Point, died in 2003 of kidney cancer.

The second was investigated in 2010 and involved Blessed Francis X. Seelos, a Redemptorist priest who served as pastor of several Maryland churches in the mid-1850s. Mary E. Heibel, an Annapolis antiques collector and appraiser, was allegedly cured of cancer after an appeal to Seelos. Heibel died in 2009 of pneumonia.

The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, contributing editor of the Catholic weekly America and author of "My Life with the Saints," said the Vatican sets a high bar for confirming a miracle — "probably higher than most of us would set it."

An ailment healed by a miracle cannot recur, voluminous proof must be submitted for both the illness and the cure, and its occurrence cannot be attributed to anything other than divine intervention, Martin said. The doctors called on by the Vatican to investigate an alleged miracle are often not Catholic and sometimes non-believers, he said.

Even though many unlikely factors would have to align for Teresa's case to result in a miracle, Whatley, the pastor at St. Mark whom the Bartlinskis call their spiritual adviser, said they believe that God called them to care for Teresa.

"When they first bought her to very, very qualified physicians, they said, 'The best thing you can do is make her comfortable,' " Whatley said. "That was what they were prepared to do, but not resigned to do. There have been little things happening to her that are beyond the norm.

"To me, based on the early reports, the fact that Teresa is still with us and looks as healthy as she does … I like to think of it as, [Pope John Paul II] is sharing a little bit of his tenacity with this little girl."

In addition to the prayers from the children at St. Mark, the Bartlinskis said through the family's blog, Our Place Called Home, people on six continents are praying for Teresa's healing. Ed Bartlinski said he has a patient at his chiropractic practice who is contacting a person in Antarctica to round out support across the globe.

A child's life

Teresa's life has affected many who've learned about her story, her parents said.

"It's brought them back to their faith, helped them go through cancer treatment; several people adopted special needs children who wouldn't have otherwise," Ann Bartlinski said. "God's used Teresa's life so far, so we know he's got great plans for her."

The family felt called to bring Teresa home, but they had their doubts at first.

"We didn't know if we could do it physically or emotionally, so we contacted our pastor," Ann Bartlinski said. "The answer he gave us was, the will of God will never lead you where the faith of God will not sustain you."

Stacked in a corner of the Bartlinskis' home is a pile of suitcases and bags that Ann Bartlinski will live out of when she relocates to Philadelphia after the surgery. The bags have been packed since August.

Ann Bartlinski said she's leaning on her faith to see that Teresa survives the heart transplant, even survives until the day they get the call that a heart is waiting for her.

"I believe God will give us the grace to be ready," she said. "If you ask me right now if I am ready, no, I am not ready. I believe God will provide the grace needed at the moment it's needed.

"There is no way we could handle that ourselves. It's just crushing. … We think about it every day. When we say good night, we don't know if she'll wake up the next morning."