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No medical explanation for Wichita girl's recovery, doctors told Vatican

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, June 27, 2011, at 12:07 a.m.
  • Updated Saturday, July 27, 2013, at 9:31 a.m.

Mass for Father Emil Kapaun

What: The Catholic Diocese of Wichita will celebrate a Mass to mark the end of its decades-long work to investigate Father Emil Kapaun's candidacy for sainthood. Thousands of documents, videos and recordings have been compiled since Kapaun's death in a North Korean prison camp in 1951. The documents will be sent to the Vatican, which will determine whether Kapaun is elevated to sainthood. Bishop Michael Jackels and Andrea Ambrosi, an investigator for the Vatican, will attend the Mass.

Where: Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Central and Broadway

When: Friday, 5 p.m.

How much: Free. The public is invited to attend. The Catholic Diocese of Wichita will stream the Mass live on its website, www.catholicdioceseofwichita.org.

As Avery Gerleman's condition continued to deteriorate, and the auto-immune disorder continued to ravage her internal organs, her doctors began seeing more surprises.

They still thought the 12-year-old girl was going to die. But about a week or two after pediatric intensivist Lindall Smith pulled out the ventilator tube, pediatric nephrologist Michelle Stuart Hilgenfeld discovered that Avery's kidneys were functioning.

This baffled Hilgenfeld. With the damage she had seen to the kidneys in her early biopsies, this should not be happening.

Hilgenfeld had been sure that if Avery by some miracle survived, she'd need constant dialysis or a kidney transplant.

When kidneys shut down, even for a day or two, they often don't start functioning again. Even if they do, they might regain only 30 percent of their function.

But five weeks after Avery's kidneys shut down, they came back on line.

There is no case like this anywhere in the medical literature, Hilgenfeld thought.

Hilgenfeld and Smith had done all they could, and they could do a lot. Hilgenfeld had seen Smith repeatedly save Avery with science and persuasion.

She knew neither of them were miracle workers. She is a Mennonite, a denomination which has none of the Catholic traditions of miracles.

But she knew, because she had seen some unexplainable things before, that there are times in crises where patients recover in a way that surpasses not only medical science but human understanding.

* * *

The doctors said Shawn and Melissa Gerleman, Avery's parents, stood up to Avery's 87 days of near-death in the hospital in heroic fashion. Grace under pressure.

Shawn said that wasn't true, that he's a sinner like everybody else. There were times, he said, when he snapped at the nurses.

"I notice that some nurses are immune to (alarm) bells," he wrote one night in his diary.

There was one moment, he said, on Nov. 18, when the respiratory therapists were having trouble getting the oxygen line to his daughter to work properly. Avery was quickly starving for oxygen, and Shawn himself figured out what was wrong — he walked over to the wall where the oxygen line was hooked up, and saw that they'd forgotten to plug it in.

"You didn't turn it on!" he said with some heat. "That's respiratory therapy 101!"

But mistakes like that were rare. Shawn and Melissa thought that with few exceptions, Avery was getting the best medical care on the planet.

They stayed cordial with the nurses most of the time. And kept praying to Father Emil Kapaun, the former Kansas priest who died in 1951 and is being considered for sainthood. Others prayed for them, too.

On Nov. 1, All Saints Day in the Catholic Church calendar, Father Eric Weldon — a priest at St. Patrick's, the Gerlemans' church — asked everyone in the parish to pray for Avery's life and recovery.

Shortly after, when she saw birthday balloons beside her bed and realized she had missed her birthday, Avery became upset, and they consoled her. Then later, she woke up again with no memory of these things, and saw the balloons, and they consoled her again.

Meanwhile, though, there were few encouraging signs: her body continued to leak blood and water where the tubes stuck out of her; she got smaller and lighter, and the alarm bells and buzzers on her room full of machines kept sounding, each alarm perhaps foretelling Avery's imminent death.

But while this was going on, encouraging things kept happening, which baffled the doctors.

Hilgenfeld finally said something dramatic to the Gerlemans, on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 23, after she got over the shock of seeing the girl's kidneys performing well.

"If someone does not know God, introduce them to Avery Gerleman."

Slowly but surely, as November drifted toward December, medical victories became more frequent.

Doctors pulled tubes out of Avery's thin body one by one. They began to reduce the medications. Avery began to eat bits of soup and other foods.

On Nov. 25, 2006, Avery, a huge University of Kansas basketball fan, watched part of the Jayhawks' game against the Florida Gators, though she fell asleep halfway through.

The next day, as it dawned on her how her parents had sat by her side day and night, she told her dad how much she liked how he and her mom took care of her. Avery told them how grateful she was.

* * *

On Dec. 4, as the hospital staff put Avery through physical therapy that caused her almost torturous pain, she stood up, a sight that no doctor had dared hope for.

By that time, because of the e-mails the Gerlemans were getting, they knew that people and prayer chains all over the world were praying for her; in Italy, in England, and other places far and wide.

People in many churches in Wichita were praying to Kapaun and Jesus and many of the saints. Avery's Wichita Attack soccer team, including the Protestant players, were saying rosaries for her with their Catholic teammates.

Other parents in Wesley Medical Center's pediatric intensive care unit, struggling to help keep their own children alive, were praying for Avery.

Every day now she became more awake and aware, and Smith and Hilgenfeld and other doctors kept finding surprises.

Later, after they scanned her lungs and kidneys, they saw what seemed impossible: no scarring, not much tissue damage. It was like peering into a building after it burned and seeing no burn marks on the walls. It did not make sense.

Her lungs had been so destroyed that Smith had told the parents that Avery, if she survived, would have to be on oxygen for the rest of her life.

But six months after Avery walked out of Wesley, she was playing competitive soccer again.

* * *

Was it a miracle?

"I don't know, but I think so," Avery said. "I think it was, but I struggle with what I think about.

"It seems weird: Why would God choose me?"

Her parents told her that perhaps her story was meant to show skeptics about God's glory.

But after thinking about her survival for a long time, Avery, now 17, told her parents this year, with one year to go in high school, that she wanted to turn the meaning of her survival into something more tangible.

She said she would become a doctor or a nurse, and spend the rest of her life helping the sick.

* * *

Three years after Avery's recovery, in 2009, Vatican representative Andrea Ambrosi came to Wichita to investigate what the church calls "alleged miracles."

Ambrosi came to interview the Gerlemans and the family of Chase Kear, a college track athlete who had inexplicably survived a pole-vaulting accident in October 2008.

The church's effort to sort out Kapaun's candidacy for sainthood, dormant for decades, had heated up after Father John Hotze, of Kapaun's old Wichita diocese, had reported these two cases.

Ambrosi, a lawyer by training, had not come to validate the cases, but to play devil's advocate and see whether he could poke holes in the stories. But as he told Hotze later, he was surprised at what he found.

Chase had smashed his skull on the ground when he missed the vaulting mat in practice. His neurosurgeon told Ambrosi Chase's survival was a miracle.

Chase's parents and family had prayed hundreds of prayers to Kapaun in the weeks that Chase hovered near death.

In their meeting with Ambrosi, Shawn and Melissa did nothing to gild or embellish the story of how their daughter survived.

Shawn had struggled with the decision about whether to even talk to the Vatican representative. He knew that Jesus and Kapaun had stressed, by word and action, that humility and humbleness were virtues to be cultivated every day.

He believed the same. He did not think that he or his family should be thought of as special, or better than anyone else.

He did not want his teenage daughter to become distracted, or to become less humble, by being put on some sort of miracle pedestal created either by the media or the Vatican.

He and Melissa also felt compassion and empathy for the other parents they had met in the hospital's intensive care unit who fought — and sometimes lost — grievous battles to save their own children.

Shawn and Melissa also believed that because of God's grace, Kapaun and many other good people already were saints in heaven, whether the Gerlemans talked to the Vatican or not.

They and Avery were sure about several things, though: That God is good, that God and the saints listen to prayer, but that God's true purposes in matters of life and death are mysteries beyond our reckoning.

Shawn and Melissa told the story matter-of-factly to Ambrosi. They did not say Avery's recovery had happened "immediately," or even quickly, even when prompted by Ambrosi's questions.

They did this despite knowing that saying so would boost Kapaun's chances. Under the church's rules about sainthood, miracles work into the formula about whether someone should be canonized.

They said Avery had great care from Hilgenfeld, Smith and many other medical specialists.

Those two doctors, though, took a different tack.

They told Ambrosi that they were stunned by Avery's survival, by her lack of tissue damage, by her apparently complete recovery. They told Ambrosi, through his Italian interpreter, that there was no scientific explanation for what happened.

They were so passionate about this that at one point, Hotze saw that both Hilgenfeld and Smith had tears in their eyes as they talked to Ambrosi.

Later, when Hotze drove Ambrosi to Wichita Mid-Continent Airport, Ambrosi told him, through his interpreter, that both the Kear and Gerleman cases were unusually good, especially the Gerleman case.

He told him that in all his years of poking holes in miracle stories for the Vatican, he had never heard a story as persuasive as what the Gerlemans' doctors told.

The case for Kapaun was looking hopeful indeed, Ambrosi said. And he said that it was a good thing that Hotze had found two such good Catholic doctors to tell this story to the Vatican.

"But Dr. Ambrosi," Hotze said, "they are not Catholic."

Ambrosi, startled, gave Hotze a long look. Then he spoke again, and the interpreter relayed his words:

"You're kidding me!"

"No, I'm not," Hotze said. "They are Protestants."

Ambrosi looked surprised, and baffled, and intrigued.

Even the Protestants thought it was a miracle.

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com.

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