Stories of Heroic Virtue

Claire Bott and Sammy clasp hands in the hospital before surgery. PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE FAMILIES PICTURED
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BY LORI HADACEK CHAPLIN

I’ll never forget the day I found out about Claire Bott’s act of bravery. I was substitute teaching for her at her First Communion class when I casually asked the teacher’s aide the reason for Claire’s absence. I was blown away when she replied, “Claire is giving someone a kidney.”

Weeks later, I saw a stunning picture of her — right before being wheeled into the operating room — posted on Facebook by her husband, Nathan. There was Claire holding hands with a young Ethiopian boy named Sammy, who was receiving her kidney.

Claire’s act of bravery reminded me of other heroes: Tom Vander Woude, who sacrificed his life in a cesspool to save his youngest son, and Mark and Ann DeLine, who allowed the most terrible news a parent will ever hear to transform their hearts.

CLAIRE’S GIFT

I wouldn’t be writing about Claire if it were not for another heroic woman, Sammy’s mother, Gelane, who did everything in her power to get help for her ill son. In Ethiopia she traveled from village to village searching for a cure. She was a widow, so she had no support or resources, but she had an unshakable faith in God.

When Sammy was 7, Gelane unexpectedly died. Her death set off a chain of events that saved her son’s life. While in an orphanage, a nurse noticed his dire condition and took him to a hospital. Three months later, in 2011, Elaine and Steve Evans adopted Sammy with the knowledge that he would eventually need a transplant.

Email plea

In the spring of 2016, Nathan and Claire Bott read a Facebook post from the Evanses — whose kids used to attend the same Front Royal, Virginia, school as the Bott children. In the post, Elaine pleaded for kidney donors for now 11-year-old Sammy.

Both Claire and Nathan, living in Meridian, Idaho, were among some 30 people who were willing to help. “Nathan and I said, ‘Why don’t we go for it? This could be our child,” Claire said. The Botts were no strangers to having a seriously ill child. Their fourth of seven children, Fionnuala, needed heart surgery when she was a baby.

The call

Discovering over the phone that she was a match to give Sammy a kidney overwhelmed Claire. Through the whole testing process, she didn’t realize that she was the only candidate.

She found herself overanalyzing her decision and worrying, What if my kidney doesn’t help Sammy?

There came a point when she realized that she needed to turn over her worries to God. Claire remembers praying, “Jesus, if you want this to work, I am going to go do whatever they want me to do, and whatever the results are, I hand this over to you.”

Unexpected meeting

On Oct. 18, 2016, Claire and Sammy — despite hospital protocol — ended up in the same hallway right before the surgery. They clasped hands, and Claire — an Irish immigrant — said in her East coast accent, “Sammy, did you say your three Hail Marys?”

After being at death’s door multiple times, Sammy is finally well and can attend school. Elaine Evans, a mother of 10 children, told Catholic Digest, “The match couldn’t have been any better than it was — miraculously they didn’t have any antibodies to each other.”

She added, “Claire’s part of our family. There is no word in the English language for what she is. ‘Another mother’ is the most accurate.”

THOMAS VANDER WOUDE’S LAST WORDS: ‘I’LL PUSH, YOU PULL’

When Dan Vander Woude learned of his father’s heroic act, he wasn’t surprised. Thomas Vander Woude, 66, was intensely devoted to his faith and to his family. His seven sons saw him daily make sacrifices to put God and his family first. He was a daily communicant, kept an Adoration hour at the church in the wee hours of the morning, and was devoted to saying the rosary. He regularly made sacrifices so he could spend time with his sons.

Dan Vander Woude, whose home is next door to his parents, in Nokesville, Virginia, said, “Dad was a pilot by trade, and he sacrificed career promotions time and time again because he wanted to have control over his schedule, which allowed him to coach at Seton High School where his sons were attending.”

Thomas was happiest when his sons were by his side. At the age of 60, he retired from an airline so he could take the position as athletic director at Christendom College — where his sons Chris and Pat were attending. This new job also allowed him to spend more time with his youngest son, Joseph, who was born with Down syndrome. Joseph was his dad’s right-hand man. “It was very common to see the two of them in the truck going to Christendom and coming back from a game,” Dan remembered.

In his free time, Thomas worked on his small farm, and often Joseph was by his dad’s side helping him.

Thomas Vander Woude served in the U.S. Navy as a pilot. PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE FAMILIES PICTURED.

Hidden danger

On the morning of Sept. 8, 2008, Joseph, 20, had just finished vacuuming the pool and was heading toward the house when he stepped on the cover of a septic tank— sheet metal overgrown with grass. It collapsed, plunging him into sewage. Joseph wasn’t able to call out for help, so Thomas had no idea what would confront him when he walked toward the pool. Discovering Joseph struggling to stay afloat, his dad jumped into the 2-by-2-foot cesspool to save his son.

An elderly brick mason, who was working on the Vander Woude home, heard Thomas yelling for help. When the mason came upon the scene he saw Thomas and Joseph covered in excrement; Thomas was fighting to hold Joseph’s head above the sewage. Joseph was too heavy for the mason to pull him out of the muck, so Thomas told him, “I’ll push, you pull.”

Propping him up

As he pushed his son, Thomas’ head disappeared under the sewage.

Even with Thomas pushing, the mason was unable to pull Joseph out, so he ran to get Thomas’ wife, Mary Ellen, shouting for her to call 911. Miraculously, Joseph’s head was still hovering above the sewage — though the tank was 7 to 8 feet deep.

Thomas had been under the muck too long. Knowing that her husband was gone, with the brick mason’s help, Mary Ellen was straining to hold on to a still-conscious Joseph until first responders arrived.

It was questionable whether Joseph would live after having ingested sewage and inhaled toxic gasses for so long. Miraculously, after a week Joseph was given a clean bill of health.

“It’s a huge blessing knowing that Dad’s sacrifice brought about saving Joseph’s life, but there were also the other consolations,” Dan said. “So many people contacted the family, and many stories were written about Dad that inspired other families — particularly parents of those who have Down syndrome children.”

”Thomas’ last words — “I’ll push, you pull” — are enshrined in the hearts of the Vander Woude family. “Dad was willing to do whatever it takes,” Dan said. “He was always pushing; he was always the one who was going to sacrifice himself.”

The Vander Woude family. PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE FAMILIES PICTURED

JOHN PAUL THE SMALL FOREVER CHANGED THEIR HEARTS

She couldn’t explain it, but Ann DeLine had an uneasy feeling that something was wrong with her unborn baby. To ease her worries, her doctor ordered some prenatal blood tests.

Mark DeLine burst into tears as he broke the news to his wife that their unborn baby had a rare chromosomal disorder called Trisomy 18, which negatively affects major organs. Babies with this abnormality also typically have a low birth weight; a small, strawberry-shaped head; a small jaw and mouth; and deformities in feet and hands. If they aren’t aborted, statistically only 5 to 10 percent of babies born with Trisomy 18 live past their first birthday, and most have an intellectual disability.

The DeLines after John Paul the Small was born. PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE FAMILIES PICTURED

See it through

Ann and Mark’s six children cried when they heard that their baby brother probably wouldn’t make it. ‘‘God picked our family for a reason, and we will get through it together as a family,’” the St. Louis couple reassured their children.

Despite the grim prognosis, the DeLines prayed for a miracle for the son they called John Paul — lovingly nick-named “John Paul the Small” after St. John Paul II (also known as John Paul the Great). Their youngest child, Clare, 10, especially clung to the hope that God would heal her baby brother.

Ann soothed Clare saying, “We can pray for a miracle, but we cannot expect one. We can’t be mad at God; we have to pray to accept God’s will.”

Strong heart

Doctors closely monitored Ann’s pregnancy, and the ultrasounds offered the family some hope. “Typically, in babies with Trisomy 18, the major organs start to fade, but with John Paul, the ultrasounds showed that his heart kept getting stronger,” she said.

But there were other serious problems; John Paul was missing his cerebellum.

Community support

The DeLines were suffering, but they were not suffering alone. They felt the love and support from their family, friends, parish, school communities, and even strangers who told them that they were praying for John Paul the Small. “This was the first time we felt the power of prayer. And those prayers really sustained us,” Ann said.

Birth

The DeLines’ daughter, Clare, with John Paul. PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE FAMILIES PICTURED.

Their family motto became this variation of a famous quote from St. Teresa of Ávila: “Let nothing disturb you, let nothing frighten you. All things are passing. God never changes. He who has God wants nothing.”

With those words in her heart, on Nov. 19, 2015, Ann, 38 weeks pregnant, was induced at Mercy Hospital in St. Louis. During her eight hours of labor, Ann’s children did everything they could to make her comfortable — rubbing her feet and back and offering soothing words.

“We were all together, and it was a beautiful moment for our family,” she remembered.

At 11:30 p.m., John Paul the Small was born, and nurses immediately placed him in Ann’s arms, hooking him up to oxygen.

But there was no heartbeat. The realization was agonizing.

John Paul the Small. PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE FAMILIES PICTURED

“The moment was beautiful, too, because when I saw his face, I thought that he looked like our other kids; he was perfect,” Mark said with emotion.

Ann added, “It just seemed like he was sleeping.”

At peace

John Paul’s death was peaceful, and so the family felt at peace. More than 1,000 people attended John Paul the Small’s funeral at St. Alban Roe Parish in Wildwood, Missouri. Ann’s sister, Barb, told her, “Look at this joy, this incredible show of support! You would have never known it if you hadn’t had the suffering.”

Hearts changed

Years after their son’s death, the DeLines still feel the impact of John Paul’s short life. “God worked his plan and allowed the events to play out as they should have,” Mark explained. “The peaceful way JP came into the world; our children’s ability to hold him while he was still warm, allowing them to make a connection to him and feel a sense of closure at the same time — this was a true gift. Our family unity was strengthened at that moment more than it has been in any other way. We all saw the beauty of God’s plan for JP, and our hearts were forever changed.”

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