Thursday, March 30, 2017

Baptizing Daughters (Hope for Heather)

This post conforms to the blog rules.I waited a long time to tell this story because I didn't want to change many details. What follows is an accurate but anonymized version of my two encounters with "Heather."

The other day I was in clinic and a young teenager (think junior high or early high school) came in for her new OB visit. She was there with her "mother," but the mother was probably fifty years older than the patient, and she was of a different race. I don't know why that was--perhaps this was a grandmother or a foster-mother--but I didn't ask. This is how I met "Heather" and her mom.

Heather was in her late first trimester and pregnant with twins. When I saw her in our MFM clinic, she had just had been told from an ultrasound that she had two daughters and that they were monochorionic/diamniotic, meaning that they were at risk for twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome. They were at risk for a lot else, but TTTS is what most of our initial conversation was about. Heather had not planned this pregnancy and she had thought about abortion, but her mom talked her out of it. Heather herself really wanted the babies now. Her boyfriend was not in the picture. Heather told me in the presence of her mom that she had experimented with cocaine. But she was obviously tough. She had accepted the fact that she would be pregnant at school and finish a year late. She was clear on her new policy about drugs and sex: "One giant nope." This made me hopeful for her.

Heather's mom was suffering, but it was almost imperceptible. She was clearly not the type that engaged in drugs or sex at such a young age. Her hair was grey, she was plump, she wore grandma shoes and pastel pants, and she had perfect grammar. (In fact, she was eerily like one of my apartment neighbors, who is a nun.) I could tell that Heather's mom was working hard to accept Heather and her choices, but that those choices were very far from what she wanted for her daughter. She was never openly disappointed with Heather during our visit, and asked many helpful questions to support her daughter during the beginning of pregnancy. This made me even more hopeful for Heather.

I tried to cover basic obstetrics and adjusted it for an adolescent, mentioning by requirement that Heather was legally the one to make the decisions about her pregnancy, any birth control, and her daughters' care. I closed my visit with Heather cordially, planning ahead for six months of careful TTTS screening in addition to routine prenatal care. Our MFM clinic is not a continuity clinic (super bummer), so I did not expect to see her again.

A few weeks later, I was working labor and delivery and the upper level resident was in a C-section with the L&D intern. I was sitting at the L&D desk in her stead. The details of this next part of the story are fuzzy because there were about eight phone calls/conversations about how Heather should come to L&D and how she was asking for me by name.

The charge nurse called me over and simultaneously, my zone phone rang. On the phone was the triage intern. "The ER is sending up are seventeen-week twins, apparently super uncomfortable." The charge nurse, meanwhile, wanted to ask me whether the seventeen-week twins in the ER should come right to L&D. I said to start them in triage. Then the triage RN called the charge nurse and asked that I come to triage. The charge nurse was in the middle of asking me to go over, explaining that they knew me by name, when the intern called me again. "I'm sending this seventeen-weeker over, she's five centimeters. She's also...asking for you?"

Readers probably know that a woman in labor near term has to dilate to 10 centimeters. You might not know that tinier babies don't need 10 centimeters of dilation. Seventeen week twins would certainly and easily fall out of a five centimeter cervix.

Heather was given the room next to the statue of Mary. Mary is at the end of the L&D hall and those rooms are the quietest and frequently used for women losing children.

Heather was having a very difficult time due to pain. She also didn't know what labor at seventeen weeks meant! She had texted friends to come visit her because she was having her babies. They were all excited. She asked to get some pain medicine before they arrived.

When I heard this, I started her pain control and then explained to her that her daughters would die today after they were born, unless they had already died in her womb. She was in shock and this did not appear to faze her, but she at least registered it. Now she was on emotional overload, with confusion, mixed sadness and relief (now she would be able to finish high school without maternity leave).

I prayed that her daughters could be born alive for baptism. I delivered her first daughter alive. I asked her if she would like the baby to be baptized before she died. "I don't know," she said, "I've been thinking about that. But my mom's Catholic, and she wanted it."

I knew this little daughter had very little time on earth, but I also knew about the validity of sacramental baptism. "Heather, this is your daughter. You must ask for baptism."

After a small pause, Heather said, "all right then. Can we baptize her?"

The nurse had called the chaplain, but sometimes they take forever to come. They don't realize the urgency of the matter and come after reviewing the mother's chart. Often, I think they don't see the difference between baptism and blessing the baby's body. Frequently, they see their job as more of a crisis emotional counselor. So I called for sterile water (and yes, I did say the word "stat").

I asked Heather what the little girl's name was. She had already picked out first and middle names for both daughters. The nurse handed me a bottle of sterile water. I poured a little water into the bottle cap, mentally making sure I knew the words to say for a conditional baptism, in the case that the baby showed no signs of life by the time I turned around. I touched the baby and noticed that she recoiled, so I baptized her with the formula for living people. Shortly thereafter, the second daughter was born, and I baptized her as well. (Between baptisms, Heather's high school friends came to visit and I sent them packing to the waiting room.)

The chaplain arrived after everything was over. I pronounced Heather's daughters dead that day and filled out two birth certificates and two death certificates. But I know there were two saints praying for their young mother. I prayed to them immediately after their deaths, and I still pray to them every once in a while. I have not seen or heard from Heather since I discharged her postpartum day two. But in a tiny way, these are my spiritual daughters, so I talk with them to keep in touch with their other mother.

There are two saints praying for Heather. Strangely, I am very hopeful for her now.


  1. What a great story!

    In my (admittedly very limited) experience in hospital ministry, even if you drop everything you're doing and go immediately, it can still take too long to get there. (Hospitals are big.) But we absolutely know the difference between baptism and blessing the body, and how important baptism is. That said: always baptize the baby in danger of death—don't ever wait for the chaplain.

    1. Father, thank you for your service to Christ and the Church! I think Catholic chaplains certainly know the difference but many of our chaplains are Protestant or relativist.

      But you're right, I don't think very much about how the chaplains have to haul across the entire hospital or how they might be in another sensitive situation. I should pray for them more. Thank you for reading and for saying yes to God's call.

  2. May God bless Heather.
    I feel the Holy Spirit was moving in her already when she repeatedly asked for you to be there at the births.
    Such a moving and grace filled story.
    Thank you for sharing this.
    Thank you for baptizing those babies.

    1. Hi seashoreknits! Thank you for reading and commenting. I never thought about how early the Holy Spirit might have been working but your insight about Heather calling out made me think... It seems that Heather's pregnancy itself was God beginning to lay out a new part of her conversion story.

  3. What a sad but beautiful story. But F.Y.I. from a canon lawyer--in danger of death, you can validly and licitly baptize infants even without parental consent. That might be helpful to keep in mind in situations where every moment counts.

    1. Really? That's good to know. I have so many unanswered questions about baptism of infants in danger of death... Do the words need to be pronounced aloud? Intelligible? If an infant survives the initial threat of death, does he or she need to be conditionally baptized after stabilization? What if the parents are against it? Can people be baptized as they are born? While unborn?

    2. Some quick answers off the top of my head:

      1. I would think the words of baptism do need to be said aloud, although I think whispering is fine;

      2. A surviving infant would not need to be conditionally re-baptized, unless you had some serious doubt about whether you baptized correctly. In this case, you would need call the nearest parish and let them know that the baptism happened so that they could make a record of it (actually, it would probably be good to do this even for an infant that did die). For an infant that survived after an emergency baptism, they can do something I think called something like "adding ceremonies" where they do all the non-actual-baptism parts of the ritual at Church later.

      3. In real danger of death, you can validly and licitly baptize an infant even against the parents' will. Obviously, however, this involves a lot of prudential pastoral judgement--baptizing the child of devout Jews who has a 50/50 chance of surviving is very different from baptizing the child of the religiously indifferent who is already actually in the process of dying.

      4. In danger of death, you can baptize a baby even before they are fully born. I think theologians differ on whether you can baptize a baby still completely in the womb. In an emergency, nobody would fault you for attempting it, although that might be a case where you'd want to talk to a priest about a conditional baptism later if the baby survived.

    3. That is SO helpful! I am interested in reading the divergent opinions about baptizing in utero. Do you know the landmark documents or the most prominent writers on that topic?