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Sunday, November 9, 2014

Fox's Baier on Faith, Family and a Special Heart...

Shock, anxiety, fear and confusion were only part of the whirlwind of emotions racing through Fox News anchor Bret Baier as he ran alongside doctors and nurses, holding his wife Amy's hand, while she was being rushed down the hallway on a gurney at the emergency room of the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, DC.

Seconds before, Amy had collapsed after an apparent nervous breakdown, combined with exhaustion, only hours after being told the couple's newborn son, Paulie, who was only a day old, needed emergency surgery immediately to correct several congenital heart defects, or he wouldn't make it past two weeks. 

It had been a wild turn of events for the Baiers, only a day removed from what the anchorman  describes as one of the happiest 24-hour periods in their lives.  They had just spent a blissful night as a new family.  They cuddled.  They caressed and kissed.  They held their baby in their arms and stared longingly at him and they dreamed.

He, like most fathers, was already envisioning his firstborn, a masculine child to boot, that would have made Godfather henchman Luca Brasi proud, play in the U.S. Open Golf Championship, sporting the winner's green jacket in the Masters Tournament or leading his NFL team to victory in the Super Bowl.

Instead, it had come to this; the emergency room of Children's National, where Paulie had been transported in a haste, his wife was having a meltdown, becoming the oldest patient in the hospital, his son's life hanging in the balance and all his fanciful dreams were caving in. 

And, it was there, at what appeared to be the low point in their life, amidst despair, with their world spinning out of control and feelings of helplessness overwhelming them, that Baier looked into his wife's eyes, after she was wheeled into a room and a curtain was drawn around them, and, through the tears, uncertainty and pain, they had a moment of clarity and began to pray.

And, it was there, at that moment, with tears rolling down their cheeks, fear wrapping every inch of their being, like a wet blanket, and as they held and try to comfort each other, that they made a pact; to be the parents their newborn son needed them to be; whether he was going to live or die.  They vowed to take each day at a time, love him unconditionally, never lose hope and trust in God to get them through it.

Seven years, three open heart surgeries, a stomach operation and seven angioplasties later, it appears their prayers were answered.  Paulie, who now wants to be called Paul, is healthy and doing fine; living the life of an average and active second grader.  The family expanded.  They now have another son, Daniel.  And, they have never felt closer to each other, to their faith and to God because of it.

Theirs is a story of perseverance through faith, love and hope, which became part of the title of Baier's book on the odyssey, Special Heart, A Journey of Faith, Hope, Courage and Love, of which he is donating all the proceeds to various non-profit pediatric heart causes.

After reading the book, I had a chance to interview the veteran TV journalist, and anchor of Fox's Special Report for the past five years, about the ordeal, his family and his faith.  And, it was in asking him to describe his faith growing up where I started.

"It was important to my family.  I went to Catholic school all my life; St. Jude's for elementary and then Marist (High) School in Atlanta... My faith was part of growing up.  I was an altar boy and my family was a family that went to church every Sunday... In college, I kind of drifted away and immediately after college, as I bounced around in small market TV, I'll be honest, I was a part-time Catholic.  I went to church and to Mass with my family, but it was not a priority."

One of the marking points of Baier's life growing up was the separation and eventual divorce of his parents and the consequent estrangement from his father.  I asked how this may have affected him and his faith.

"It was tough.  It was really difficult.  You know, there were trust issues and I didn't talk to him (father) for a long time.  And, that, I'm sure affected my faith.  Growing up it (faith) was kind of a family thing and when my parents got divorced, or annulled, it affected that unit and it was tough for my brother (as well)... But, we reconciled with my marriage to Amy.  He came to the wedding and then began a process of reconciliation.  And, it was after the birth of our son and then 2nd son, that it was important that he know our family.  And, we established a relationship and have done so since."

I questioned whether becoming a parent made faith more important to him.

"It's like a compass.  It seems to put you on the right direction.  Even if you're not over the top into it every day; going to Mass every day, but you at least go every week and you go to Confession every once in a while, it's something that feels like home.  It feels like when I grew up.  And, so I think, trying to instill that with my family is something that I am trying to do."   

Then we got into that day, June 30, 2007, when a nurse, who was filling in for the regular shift nurse, who was forced to leave due to health issues, noticed Paulie's color wasn't right.  She took him in to run some tests, thinking it might be a bacterial infection, but called a cardiologist to take a look at him to be safe.

It just so happens that the doctor on call, was the head of the cardiology department at Children's National nearby, who was driving by on the way to another call.  After checking Paulie and finding five congenital heart defects, he went into the Baier's room and told them, "You're baby has heart disease... Paulie's heart is built wrong... If your son doesn't have surgery within the next two weeks, he's not going to make it."      

"As you know, it's the highest of highs, especially for your first child.  And, to go through the birthing process with your wife and see this human that you form... it's just... you know, you can't really put words to it.  And, it will draw tears even from the biggest tough guy there is...  So, we had this blissful 24-hours with Paul in the hospital... So, it was sort of like a nuclear bomb of emotions; from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows.  And, my first instinct was really anger.  Who are you to say this?... I want another opinion.  Why didn't I know this up until now?  He had been given a clean bill of health. And, it was all happening very quickly.  But, at the same time, it was like time stood still, which is why I describe it as a nuclear bomb... And, then came the sorrow; why is this happening to us?  Why did God let this happen to us?  And, the pity; why should we have to deal with this?"

Shortly afterwards, emergency medics arrived and Paulie was hooked up to all sorts of IV's, wires and monitors and transferred via ambulance to Children National's cardiac center.  Baier and his father-in-law followed in a car and not long after, Amy showed up at the hospital as well, but that is when it all hit her.  She collapsed and had to be rushed to the emergency room.  And, that was when they broke down and prayed.

"And, that's I think, you know, from growing up.  That was the instinct I had; to say a prayer... And, I think she had the same thing.  And, after that, we somehow had this idea, this strength, that we needed to be the parents that Paul needed us to be... That we needed to create this environment that was positive; that was looking to the future; that we were going to rely on God and family and trust in the doctors.  And, we had this mantra at the end of every day, 'We're one day closer to getting Paul home,' and that became kind of our blueprint."

Still, there were many long days and nights ahead.  To pass the time, as they waited for a highly skilled surgeon to return from a foreign trip to perform the surgery on Paulie, the Baiers often found themselves praying in the hospital chapel; sometimes as a couple, sometimes individually.  There was a Bible on a stand in the room and Baier writes that he often opened it and played Bible bingo, in hopes of finding encouragement and solace.  One time, the Bible was already opened and someone had marked Hebrews 11 verse 1: "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen."  The words moved him because, he felt, that was what he and Amy were clinging to.

"You know, everybody has something; something that's in their life that they have to deal with.  Obviously, there's different levels of something but there's always something.  And, how you get through that something, I think really defines you and we relied heavily on prayer.  And, we believe that that is a big part of why we were successful with Paul.  And, that power of prayer lifted us up and enabled us to have that thought; the light at the end of the tunnel, was going to be possible."

One of the first things they decided to do was to get Paulie Baptized as soon as possible.  And, four days after being born, in the cardiac unit of the hospital, family and friends huddled around for the sacrament.

"From that point, when Amy was in the emergency room, I think it really jump started that want and need to have that rekindled relationship; even supercharged relationship with God.  So it was really important that we get Paul baptized in the hospital; not only because, one, we didn't know, frankly, whether he was going to make it and we wanted him to be a part of our faith; a window into the Church, as Catholics look at it.  But, two, we wanted him, as I wrote in the book, on God's scoreboard; not that God wasn't looking over him but it was important for us to have that ceremony; to acknowledge everything that we had been talking about in our prayers privately." 

They found a priest from Kenya, who was at the hospital visiting patients, got a special "dispensation" from the head nurse in the unit, closed the curtains around Paulie's basinet and extended the wires and tubes so that Amy could hold him.

"With our family around us and tears flowing, it might have well have been at St. Peter's Basilica because it was just beautiful.  We all said our prayers that came from the heart and then we did the traditional baptism."

Prayers were a big part of what carried them through this trial in life.  They were getting prayers from around the country.

"I sent out these emails, and they were really the genesis of the book, to family and friends and they would be sharing those emails with other family and friends and, literally, it became viral in the email chains.  And, I would be getting a three-bank shot relationship from somebody emailing me with a prayer... And, a Southern Baptist Pastor, who watched the show, heard about this and he emailed and sent beautiful prayers that I read to Amy... And, these prayers lifted us up.  You can't really describe it but, this feeling of walking on a different plateau; a different place because you knew all these people were praying for you.  And, we felt it.... We suddenly believed that Paul was going to make it.  We suddenly had strength to get through the day.  You know, we were exhausted but it was, I don't know, empowering."

The Southern Baptist Pastor had his congregation pray for them.  They got prayers from family, friends, colleagues, even from President George W. Bush, in fact, he writes about missing the President's call one time.  They got prayers from a priest at the Vatican and from former White House Press Secretary and friend Tony Snow, who later lost his battle with cancer.

"Tony was one of the first people who emailed and sent prayers up in his email when I sent out the first email about Paul.  And, little did I know, at the time, he was going through his own difficult situation in chemotherapy.  And, after Paul's surgery, he welcomed me back to the White House.  I was the Chief White House Correspondent at the time and it was really heart felt and he was the one that set up the relationship with President Bush... and inviting us to his office before Paul's second open heart surgery because President Bush wanted to meet him... But, the fact that he, in the middle of his own trials and tribulations, was reaching out to me and to us meant a lot and his passing hit hard.  I think it gave (me) this sense that you affect your life by how you handle yourself."

I inquired how he balances his busy career with family and faith and what a typical day is like for him.

"My time with my kids is in the morning usually.  So, we do breakfast and that sort of thing; get them going for whatever they're doing; summer camp or school.  I usually have some radio interviews with stations around the country after that.  I squeeze in a workout there and I'm in the office by 9:30a or 10 o'clock.  My day is busy, packed and we have the show from 6 to 7.  I have a kind of post-mortem.  I do emails and social media a little bit and then get home at about 8:00pm... Daniel is usually in bed.  But, I usually am able to put Paul to bed and that's a big deal because we, every night, pray and he now leads the prayers.  And, since he's been able to, he's taken that over and, every night, he prays for other kids at the hospital who are facing surgery the next day... As far as my faith, I go to a local parish, Little Flower in Bethesda, the pastor is a good friend and a really great spiritual advisor... and he's a big proponent of Confession.  So, I never used to do it, but I'm meeting with him at least once every two weeks and we have Confession and then we talk.  And, then, we try to go every Sunday to Mass and, if we're traveling, I try to go online and find a church that's nearby."

I asked what he prays for.

"I often pray for strength, for our family and to get through the hurdles of whatever lies ahead.  And, for Paul; that his heart is healed and that we can live a normal life with the family.  We've been trying to focus on that in between these events (surgeries and angioplasties) and he's probably due for another angioplasty in about a year and another open heart surgery probably when he's, hopefully, 14 or 15, and hopefully that's the last one.  I try to pray for happiness and peace in those times between hurdles.

In the book,  Baier writes that he knows God saved Paulie's life because He has a plan for him.  I asked what he thought that plan was.

"I don't know what it is but I know it's something special because he's already changing lives and has changed lives.  I felt compelled to write this book and speak about it and we've raised a lot of money for Children's National Medical Center and for other pediatric heart research and treatment centers around the country... So, he's already impacted, I think, a lot of people.  I think he has amazing things left to do in his life and there is a purpose.  It's just what I believe and what I've told him and I think there's a blueprint some place."

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

Without a doubt, in the Baiers' case, it's not only the measure of a man, but of a woman and a little boy, who, amidst their challenge and inconvenience, decided to embrace it and stand faithfully with God...


Emily said...

What a beautiful story of faith and prayer.

Nancy Shuman said...

I was very struck by this. Thank you.

Carlos Espinosa said...

Thank you, Emily and Nancy.
Check out Bret's book. It was a touching and powerful read.
God bless.