The heart of a lion

At 6 months old, Aaron Morales is teaching a community about the value of life and the power of prayer

THE MIRACLE OF LIFE Sandra Morales De La Sancha and Bernabé Roman Torres are shown with their children, (from oldest to youngest) Luis, Cristina, Adrian, Jasmin and Aaron. The family prayed intensely that Aaron would survive childbirth, although doctors said he likely would not due to a heart defect. Aaron’s pediatric cardiologist now says Aaron’s heart is nearly normal and credits the healthy turnaround to faith and prayer. Photo by Stephanie Richer

THE MIRACLE OF LIFE Sandra Morales De La Sancha and Bernabé Roman Torres are shown with their children, (from oldest to youngest) Luis, Cristina, Adrian, Jasmin and Aaron. The family prayed intensely that Aaron would survive childbirth, although doctors said he likely would not due to a heart defect. Aaron’s pediatric cardiologist now says Aaron’s heart is nearly normal and credits the healthy turnaround to faith and prayer. Photo by Stephanie Richer

Aaron Roman Morales should not be here.
By all accounts, birth defects would rob Aaron of the life his parents desperately wanted for him. At least that’s what the doctors concluded.
But here he is, at 6 months old, growing and thriving and behaving like most children his age.
That’s a far cry from Nov. 28, 2013, when Aaron’s mother and father – Sandra Morales De La Sancha and Bernabé Roman Torres – were first alerted that their unborn baby had life-threatening health issues.
The crushing report followed an ultrasound that detected insurmountable medical conditions. The prenatal diagnosis then took a turn that’s devastating to any mother- or father-to-be. Doctors urged Mrs. Morales to end her child’s life.
“They told her he had a defect in his heart and had Down syndrome and club feet. They then gave her the option of aborting Aaron, but she refused,” said Luis Garcia, Mrs. Morales 18- year-old son.
The life-altering dilemma suddenly consumed the family. They wanted to follow their physicians’ medical recommendations, but they couldn’t go against their conscience and faith.
Father Steve Pawelk, GHM, pastor of St. John Paul II Catholic Mission in Rutledge, noted that Mrs. Morales and Mr. Roman Torres do not speak English and did not attend Mass regularly, but she had faith that God would guide her through this crisis.
And her maternal instinct began kicking in.
“They went to church occasionally. But Sandra felt God was telling her to keep her baby, and that’s what she decided to do,” Father Pawelk said, explaining how he became involved with the family.
Faced with a pregnancy crisis and pressure from doctors to abort her baby, Mrs. Morales and Mr. Roman Torres followed their faith, which led them to St. John Paul II Mission that serves the Grainger County area.

Devastating diagnosis
“The doctors originally said the baby had no chance to live because its heart wasn’t sealed properly. That’s when (the couple) approached me for spiritual guidance,” Father Pawelk said.
The Glenmary Home Missioners priest advised the couple to see another doctor and begin praying. Mrs. Morales and her husband started praying intensely and sought second medical opinions.
But abortion was not going to be an option.
“I was going to leave it up to God and let Him decide what He wants,” Mrs. Morales said through her son, Luis, who pointed out that physicians continued to warn her the baby likely wouldn’t survive after birth or survive the required surgery needed to repair its heart.
Crestfallen by the diagnosis that a section of their baby’s heart would never close, the couple sought spiritual sanctuary with Father Pawelk and Father Aaron Wessman, another Glenmary Home Missioners priest who was the associate pastor at St. John Paul II Mission.
The two Glenmary priests have been working with the Diocese of Knoxville to establish Catholic communities in Grainger and Union counties. The Union County church, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta in Maynardville, recently was elevated to parish status by Bishop Richard F. Stika. The Glenmarys also are establishing a mission in Unicoi County, led by Father Tom Charters, pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Mission.
A growing percentage of people attending Mass in those counties are Hispanic.
Sandra Morales and Bernabé Roman Torres first came to St. John Paul II Mission from Jefferson City as sponsors for another couple that was having their marriage convalidated. That first visit led to more.
As Father Pawelk and Father Wessman got to know Sandra, Bernabé and their family, they began to advise the couple on strengthening their faith.
Sandra and Bernabé also decided to convalidate their marriage during this time.
“They were eight months pregnant when they got married. But they were married,” Father Pawelk explained, emphasizing the couple’s sacrament of matrimony.
As Mrs. Morales and Mr. Roman Torres received guidance for their unborn child, they also were receiving guidance for their relationship and their blended family.
Father Pawelk and Father Wessman advised them to return to the Church and attend Mass on a regular basis as a family. So, as the couple continued to receive prenatal medical care, they also received spiritual care, prompting their decision to convalidate their marriage.
“One of the reasons she wanted to get married in the Church is because she wanted young Aaron in the womb to receive the Holy Sacrament,” Father Pawelk said.
And that would be the first Holy Communion for Mr. Roman Torres and Mrs. Morales.
And as the family’s faith grew stronger, the Grainger County Catholic community grew closer to the family. News of the family’s crisis was being shared.
The crisis pregnancy spurred Mrs. Morales, Mr. Roman Torres, their children and the St. John Paul II Mission to offer a critical response.

The power of prayer
Shortly after the fateful ultrasound, rosaries and novenas began to be prayed in homes throughout the mission. Throughout the month of December, prayers, rosaries and novenas filled those homes as Aaron’s family drove considerable distances daily to pray at the mission.
Father Pawelk made people aware through the mission’s prayer chain. And the family responded in kind.
“Every evening we prayed the rosary. Every morning we woke at 3 a.m. to pray the Divine Mercy prayer,” Mr. Roman Torres said through his son, Luis.
After a full-court press of prayer, rosaries, and novenas was initiated and carried out during Mrs. Morales’ pregnancy, a local medical professional took notice.
“Just before Aaron’s birth, we went to a cardiologist, and the doctor asked me if we were involved in any church and if we were praying for him (the doctor),” Luis Garcia said. “The doctor said the heart was healing fast and that Aaron was a true miracle. He said he’s never seen anything like that and to keep praying for him.”
Father Pawelk said the re-diagnosis is proof that Aaron is living and thriving because of those prayers and God’s intercession.
As Mrs. Morales’ pregnancy came to term, a physician at a Morristown clinic pronounced the baby ready for birth during a routine check-up. The doctor wanted to induce labor, but when told of the baby’s diagnosis, she was referred to the University of Tennessee Medical Center. She then was quickly transferred to Vanderbilt Medical Center after UT told her the baby would require surgery immediately after birth.
Within six hours, Mrs. Morales had traveled from Morristown to Knoxville, then to Nashville. She and her husband arrived at Vanderbilt on March 31 and Aaron was born on April 3.
“I couldn’t even get to Knoxville in time to pray with her. They moved her that fast,” Father Pawelk said.
Mr. Roman Torres said doctors at Vanderbilt did another ultrasound prior to birth, and a heart specialist told them the baby likely was not going to live.
“The baby would require three surgeries and the doctors told them that babies with Down syndrome usually don’t survive heart surgery,” Luis Garcia said.
Mr. Roman Torres described the scene after Aaron’s birth, where machines were affixed to Aaron to monitor his condition. But the physicians and nurses were quickly caught off guard.
“They were surprised the baby was breathing on his own and did not require oxygen. No surgeries were required because the heart only had a small defect. After three days, instead of Aaron dying, we took him home,” Luis said.
Mrs. Morales said the nurses were in disbelief that Aaron was being taken home so soon because infants with conditions like Aaron was diagnosed with are typically in the hospital at least three months.
Father Pawelk explained that Aaron does have Down syndrome and a correctible condition with his lower legs. But he appears to be functioning at a high level and is displaying many of the normal growth markers for a child his age.
“The doctors told them at four months that he wouldn’t live, then again at birth. The only physical difficulty is Aaron’s legs, and he has been in a lower body cast to correct that,” Father Pawelk said. “We put the prayer line into action and prayed to St. John Paul II, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and St. Gerard Majella, the patron of difficult pregnancies. Padre Pio was invoked for healing as was Our Lady of Guadalupe.”

‘A true miracle story’
Father Pawelk beams when talking about how the Holy Spirit has blessed Sandra Morales, Bernabé Roman Torres and their family.
His excitement was evident in a letter he sent Bishop Stika last spring outlining the events surrounding Aaron’s birth. He started the letter with, “Dear Bishop Stika, I wish to report a true miracle.”
Bishop Stika has been with the family and was moved by young Aaron and his impactful story.
“I remember reading about all the potential life lost within the context of those millions of babies — those who may have found a cure for cancer or become the next president of the United States, a great peace-maker,” Bishop Stika said. “It just shows you the potential of life and when that life is destroyed before it’s allowed to walk on the earth, it’s just a great loss.”
“For one, life is so sacred, but also, the potential of those lives lost, and then you see this young baby, you see God’s creation in the smile and in the eyes,” the bishop added.
Bishop Stika praised Sandra Morales and Bernabé Roman Torres for ignoring some of the doctors and instead opting for life. He said her decision to give birth to Aaron was a true act of faith.
“You talk about absolute trust in God, from the advice of the physician — which I can’t understand because physicians by their nature are supposed to save life, preserve life and safeguard life — for the advice she received and yet she trusted in the Lord — and she had this beautiful baby,” he said.
The pediatric cardiologist the family finally placed their trust in also has been wowed by the outcome.
Dr. Michael Liske, who is with the East Tennessee Pediatric Cardiology medical practice in Knoxville, began treating Mrs. Morales while she was pregnant with Aaron.
Dr. Liske points out that he was not among the doctors who recommended aborting Aaron.
“I never give that advice,” he said.
Following thorough examinations and tests before delivery, Dr. Liske advised Sandra and Bernabé that their baby likely would have serious congenital heart deficiencies that would be life-threatening.
Dr. Liske’s diagnosis was that Aaron’s mitral valve was too small at six millimeters in the womb. The valve should be eight millimeters.
“This would require a complex set of heart surgeries — three in all. These surgeries are difficult and the chances of survival are quite small in children with Down syndrome,” he said.
Dr. Liske said a decision was made for Aaron to be born at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville, and when Mrs. Morales was rushed to Nashville during child birth, a Vanderbilt physician treating her confirmed Dr. Liske’s diagnosis.
But to everyone’s surprise Aaron’s mitral valve had reached a measurement of 7.8 millimeters — nearly normal.
Dr. Liske examined Aaron at 12 days of age and his mitral valve measured 9.8 millimeters. He examined Aaron again in recent weeks and found him to be doing quite well.
Dr. Liske shared his findings, and he didn’t discount the effects of prayer on Aaron’s medical phenomenon.
“I am absolutely thrilled with this child’s cardiac status. It’s certainly conceivable that the value of the mitral valve I measured prior to delivery was in error, although the fact this was confirmed by a Vanderbilt evaluation makes this less likely,” Dr. Liske said.
“I really do not have a good explanation for this child’s wonderful status. Perhaps it’s the prayers of this family and their church that were answered. We still have some minor issues with the heart, but ultimately I think this child will do great from a cardiac standpoint. His heart, which I thought would have been a major issue, has faded into the background.”
Father Pawelk points out that the miracle story involves more than young Aaron. He said it’s also a wonderful story of faith, courage of conviction, forgiveness and redemption.
“Part of the story is they got their life reorganized so that God was a priority. Father Aaron and I worked with them in bringing them back into the Church through God’s intercession,” he said.
Mrs. Morales and Mr. Roman Torres were so moved by the outpouring of support and prayer by the Glenmary priests and the St. John Paul II mission that they named Aaron after Father Wessman.
In the six months since Aaron’s birth, his father has been confirmed in the Church, the youngster has been baptized and he continues to grow out of baby clothes.
“He’s drinking from a cup and making sounds, so he is functioning as almost a normal child,” Mr. Roman Torres said.
Aaron’s big brother, who has prayed as hard as anyone, believes Aaron’s life is a true blessing from God. But you don’t have to take his word for it.
“The doctor did say it’s a real miracle and he told me to keep praying for him (the doctor),” Luis Garcia said.
Father Pawelk agrees with Dr. Liske but not every physician involved in Aaron’s case – the ones who strongly urged Mrs. Morales to abort Aaron.
“Doctors don’t know everything. Faith does work. The Lord has done this for a reason,” he said. “Their (the family) faith is incredible. It shows what can happen through faith and prayer.
“This is a true miracle story and a story of faith. God helped them love this child into life.”