By the time one is five months "along," the happy reality of buying little baby things usually is a given.
But for Mary Jo of Elma, and her husband, 19 weeks into her pregnancy, when the examining room door shut, the look on their doctor's face told them all was not well.
The chilling news was delivered: Their baby had developed with no kidneys, no bladder and no chance of survival, a condition known as "Potter's syndrome." The tragic news hit doubly hard because just 10 months earlier, Mary Jo had a miscarriage, and the happy hopes for the baby she now carried were quickly replaced with intense pain.
But for Mary Jo and her husband, and the tiny child they later christened "Thomas," there was never a thought of denying what life God gave to him. Her doctor told them that the son she was carrying would upon birth appear to have a flattened or stretched out appearance, like when you put a stocking over your face.
"Yes, it was very difficult to experience the death of my infant son, but there was never a 'choice,' never any other way, only what God had planned," said Mary Jo. "God decides life and death, and we cannot interfere with his decision. God's intent is that the best part of life is the safety and security we feel in the womb, and then after life, to have eternity in heaven."
God touched Thomas, she says. "I saw him open and close his mouth and take his first breath. I saw him wiggle a little. I touched his soft skin, kissed his sweet baby face. I wouldn't have missed it for the world." This experience, she says, made her what she is today: a stronger, more faith-filled person, a careful planner and a collector of angels.
Her son weighed 3 pounds, was 15 inches long and lived 58 minutes. He never opened his eyes to see her or look around. "He was absolutely beautiful," she said. Contrary to the dire predictions of the doctor, little Thomas came "with chubby cheeks and fluffy, light brown hair, his nose was a bit pinched, but that was the only sign that there was anything wrong, or that Thomas wasn't supposed to live."
Ten months later, Mary Jo had another boy. Kevin, today 14 years old, and his younger brother Brendan, almost 12, were born healthy, and the family feels not harmed, but blessed, by the gift of Thomas.
Maria Siobhan Saltarelli was born on Valentine's Day in 1997 with a condition called Trisomy 13, which left her severely deformed. Monica Saltarelli, her aunt, held her tiny niece the night before she died, and even though little Maria's eyes never opened, Monica says the eyes of many others were opened during the short 5 weeks this infant lived.
"She brought us a different kind of miracle," Saltarelli said. "She, sick of body, brought healing to our family, brought many back to the faith, and there was something gently, divinely blessed about her.
"She brought tremendous blessings not only to our family but to our parish, which responded with so much help during this time, it was almost overwhelming, showing us the tremendous power of the powerless."
Saltarelli says this infant, whose Memorial Mass was attended by 300, brought tremendous good to all whom her short life touched.
Bev and her husband Bill (not their real names) were married in July of 1993, and due to medical problems, she was put on birth control pills until they caused her other problems. So the couple decided to let nature take its course. For two years, she and her husband believed that if she were meant to get pregnant, she would, but nothing occurred.
Then in February of 1999, her gynecologist confirmed that she was indeed pregnant. Sixteen weeks into the pregnancy, her doctor told her to take an AFP (alpha-fetal protein) test to see if she was at risk for spina bifida or Down Syndrome.
"After speaking with family, we decided against amniocentesis, especially after we learned that 1 in 200 pregnancies end in miscarriage 24 hours after the tests," Bev said.
Bev and Bill did, however, agree to a blood test; and it showed elevation for spina bifida.
"The doctor had me a wreck," she says. "But after a lot of agonizing, we decided to keep the baby no matter what."
After a visit to a genetic counselor, then a specialist, they were told 30 to 40 percent of these blood tests are accurate. "The test just puts you in a category, which means you could have a child with a problem," Bev said.
She and her husband saw a high-risk pregnancy doctor, and decided that if he determined that they were at a high risk, they would agree to the amniocentesis. The doctor didn't see anything wrong and wouldn't advise them either way, but he did say on their leaving the office on a beautiful June day that they had a better chance of being struck by lightning than being at risk for having a problem baby. He told them not to worry and assured them it would be all right.
Late in term, it was found that the baby was outgrowing the uterus, which was running low on amniotic fluid. Bev was induced two weeks early. Their baby was born at 5 pounds, a normal boy, and is now a year and a half old, a very healthy and active little boy.
With their first pregnancy, Bill reassured Bev that God never sends you more than you can handle. From that point on, they felt that whatever was meant to be, they would face.
Today they are grateful for their healthy and normal little boy, who, even if he had been deformed, would still have received a warm welcome from mom and dad.
Suzanne, of East Aurora, and her husband were stunned when her first sonogram revealed "monoamniotic twins" -- identical girls who shared not only the same placenta, but also the same amniotic sac. Such twins have a 50 percent mortality rate. Even if they survived in the womb, severe harm could occur from cord entanglement or oxygen deprivation.
They had heard of another set of twins like this, who survived but ended up being institutionalized, due to severe brain damage. But Suzanne's daughters died in utero at 23 weeks. She waited for the natural onset of labor, which occurred five weeks later.
"To me, the pain of knowing that I would likely lose them and go through childbirth only to hold my dead children was nothing compared to the pain and guilt that would surely have only added to this tragedy had I decided to end their lives according to my timetable and not nature's," she said.
"The opportunity to carry them longer contributed only positively to my grieving. As a mother, I wanted to nourish and love and carry them as long as nature would allow. It was the least I could do for my two little girls. God knows best, and his timing is always perfect."
Debbie and Mike, happy parents of several healthy children and joyfully expecting yet another, sadly collided head-on with what some might term tragedy.
At her 20 week sonogram, the doctor informed Debbie that he could not detect a heartbeat. A return sonogram met with the same results, as did another before labor was induced. Their child, conditionally baptized "Mary-Joseph" because it could not be determined whether it was a boy or girl, was delivered, and the family held a private service and burial for the infant.
They were given spiritual advice from Benedictine monks in a nearby state. "This whole experience both tested my faith and made it so strong," Debbie said.
Her husband says it wouldn't have changed things if the child had lived in its severely deformed condition, whether it was physical or mental -- the thought of taking its life in the womb, even if their child had not already died, was never a question for them as Catholics.
"Life is a gift from God," said Mike. "If God so wills to give a gift of life, he also will give you the grace to provide for that gift, and whatever the cross, he gives you the grace to carry it."
Mike says there were never any options or questions, only "to submit to God's will and ask of him what strengths needed to submit."
This did not mean that the future was easy. Debbie says that getting through it all and being open to yet two more children, never knowing if this would happen again (the doctors never were able to explain what happened with Mary-Joseph) was not easy mentally. There was always that dread fear of what the next sonogram might show. Yet, she says, she is in awe of how her faith, so tested, has grown and been strengthened.
"God already made the choice," says Mike. The only "choice" was to ask for his grace, and that, Mike and Debbie both say, was given in abundance.
STASIA ZOLADZ VOGEL is a local pro-lifer and president of Buffalo Regional Right to Life Inc. She was assisted by Rose Wade and Charles Harte in preparing this article.