For the next long while, Pamela Lewis, 35, knows she will most likely be that person who will randomly start crying when encountering something unexpectedly like a rainbow, an empty carseat, or perhaps a baby blanket without a baby all snugly wrapped up.
But she knows it’s OK to cry. She knows her entire family, including her husband Paul Joseph, 36 — nicknamed PJ — and her three young children all under the age of 10, have somehow been profoundly touched by what they have experienced in the last couple of months.
That experience includes all the joyful moments of anticipation, mixed with the awful dread of what the future might bring. And of course it includes the little miracle they prayed so hard to happen, and that did happen. And it also includes the sorrow-filled ‘good bye’ they knew they must say after much too short a visit.
Despite the fear, uncertainty, and roller-coaster-ride of emotions, deep down inside the Catholic family knows that God was looking after all of them the entire time, and leading them in the strange and mysterious ways of his goodness and mercy.
‘God, you are all Good’
It all started in February 2014 with Pamela’s first scheduled ultrasound in her hometown of Mission, British Columbia. Pamela suspected something was amiss when her sonographer remained silent during her baby’s 15-week scan. Days later, Pamela’s doctor confirmed her worst fears, telling her that her baby had a fatal chromosomal abnormality.
“You will more than likely have a miscarriage. If you do make it to term, you will most likely have a super short life with the child, and the child will be severely deformed with cleft palate and brain damage,” the doctor said, according to Pamela in an interview with LifeSiteNews.
Abortion was recommended as a solution to the problem.
Pamela left the doctor’s office, tears streaming down her face. How could she end the life of her very own baby growing inside her? How could she, who was nurturing this new life, have anything but love for this baby, especially since the baby now needed someone to depend on more than ever? Abortion was simply unthinkable.
What Pamela remembers most about this moment is the resounding “No” that surged through the core of her being when offered that choice.
But Pamela was scared by the diagnosis. She turned to God in prayer. “God, you are all Good – Your will be done. Just give us the strength to get through this,” she prayed at the time.
One of Pamela’s good friends gave her some advice that helped her tremendously: “Pamela – how lucky that your baby has you for parents. Most women in fear would have aborted their child. You have preserved her life and kept her safe and will love her until God takes her back,” Pamela remembers her friend Roxanne saying.
A second ultrasound at a different clinic in Surrey, BC, showed, to Pamela’s great relief, that the first diagnosis was wrong. But the relief was short-lived. Doctors wanted a third ultrasound performed, which revealed that the baby’s arms and legs where not straight as they should be, but had a concerning bend to them. Pamela braced herself for more bad news.
A group of specialists and genetic counselors told Pamela and PJ their baby, who was a girl, had a rare disorder called Campomelic Dysplasia, a condition that inhibits the proper development of the body’s bones and cartilage. They were told that many babies with this condition don’t make it to birth. The ones that do make it usually die within days.
Abortion was once again offered as a solution.
What Pamela remembers most about this moment is the resounding “No” that surged through the core of her being when offered that choice. How could her baby’s problems be solved by abortion? Was not this baby a member of her family? Now was the time the baby needed to be loved the most, not to be discarded like garbage. Abortion could never be the answer.
Pamela and PJ named their baby Gianna Seraphina, meaning “God is gracious” and “fiery one.” As the weeks progressed, the baby’s diagnosis only worsened. Doctors said if Gianna made it to birth, she would not be able to breathe because her lungs would be incapable of expanding. Her thorax was underdeveloped, putting massive strain on her developing organs. Her bone structures, including her skull, were extremely fragile. Doctors gave her about a 3 percent chance of surviving the birthing process, saying that if she were to survive, she would likely die shortly afterwards.
The parents told their other children Veronica, Anastasia, and Macarius that their little pre-born sister was sick and needed a miracle from God to even be born alive. Pamela recounted how the children would come and kiss her belly, showing their love and affection for their sister. They would put their hands on her belly to feel Gianna moving around inside. Together the family prayed for a miracle of healing, but first and foremost they prayed to be docile to God’s plan, whatever it might be.
Pamela was now experiencing a bittersweet mix of emotions. Inside her womb, Gianna was protected and safe. But being outside her womb would put Gianna’s life in grave danger. Wasn’t a mother to look with joyful anticipation toward the birth of her child? But Pamela could only look on that fast approaching day with fear and uncertainty. Pamela tried to focus on the joy Gianna brought her when her little baby responded to her voice with movement and gentle kicking. But she knew every new day brought both of them closer and closer to that defining moment that threatened to bring their shared joy to an end.
Pamela also struggled with the ethical questions involved in caring for Gianna if she made it through the birth. What if Gianna needed to be intubated so she could breathe, but the procedure caused her immense pain and suffering? What if forgoing the procedure caused their daughter to die from asphyxiation? Pamela was beset with ghastly images of worst-case scenarios.
A friendly priest, Fr. John Horgon, helped put her fears to rest. He first advised Pamela to simply love Gianna right then, in the present moment. She should sing songs to her, pray with her, take her daily vitamins.
“This may be the only time you can hold Gianna, as she is…growing in your belly. You are not a mother after labor, you are a mother now,” she remembers him saying.
Fr. John then said that Gianna should receive everything medically necessary to be given the chance at life that every child deserves. If intubating her so she could breathe would help her to live, then it should be done. She should not be denied nourishment and hydration. She should be offered the gift of human touch as soon as possible. If she was beyond medical help, then she should be held and loved until her last breath, Pamela remembers him saying.
‘God, give us one day with her’
With 10 weeks to go before the due date, Pamela continued to work as a waitress at Olive Garden. With Gianna not being able to swallow, Pamela had built up an excess of amniotic fluid, making her belly’s protrusion very noticeable. “I really liked working, but as a server, I think I was scaring the patrons. People kept asking me if I was going into labor,” she recounted.
Ultrasounds every two weeks only showed more clearly Gianna’s arched neck, bent bones, small jaw, and poor lung formation. The scans also showed her full head of hair and her enthusiastic movements.
Once while visiting the Neonatal Intensive-Care Unit in preparation for the big day, doctors showed Pamela the ventilator, which at that moment housed a preemie baby who had been intubated. The reality of what was about to come suddenly flashed before Pamela’s eyes.
“I just stared at this baby like I had already given birth, and this was my Gianna – so incredibly weak and helpless and fully reliant on God and her parents for life. I bit my lip so hard I almost bled. I needed to leave before I started to fight to hold this baby that wasn’t mine. It was then that my desire for Gianna to make it was the strongest.”
Doctors asked Pamela to temporarily move closer to the hospital in Vancouver two weeks before the due date so they could better monitor her and the baby. Pamela and PJ settled in the Easter Seals house, a special place near the hospital so parents can stay close by their sick children. To pass the time the couple played crib and other board games. They went to daily Mass. They prayed the Rosary. They relaxed in the gardens. They were grateful that PJ's sister Sheena was able to watch the other children.
Pamela and PJ were still praying for a miracle of healing, but were resigned to accepting whatever God allowed to happen. They began to see death, even the possible death of their daughter, as something that could be made holy. They began to pray earnestly for Gianna to live even for a short time so they could hold her, love her, baptize her, and be able to say ‘good-bye’ to her. They realized that if their daughter lived for even a short time, it would be a “wonderful and gracious blessing that God has allowed us.”
“Our prayer was always the same. ‘God, give us one day with her. We understand that we may not get to keep her, but let us have time with her to say good bye,’” Pamela said.
With the help of their faith, Pamela and PJ understood that Gianna’s early death would not be the end of their dreams and plans for her, but really just the beginning. If she died, she would go to heaven to be “babysat” by Jesus, until that day when they would be all reunited once again.
“We realized she would be with family, with the Saints, with her Grandpa and her Great Grandparents…. and of course with God. And of course, God willing, eventually with us in the future. It was bittersweet – but way more sweet,” said Pamela.
“Our prayer was always the same. ‘God, give us one day with her. We understand that we may not get to keep her, but let us have time with her to say good bye.’”
Pamela strove to be positive and upbeat for the sake of her baby, especially after a friend visiting her in the Easter Seals house spoke about how the baby in the womb feels to some degree what the mother herself is feeling. A baby can hear a mother laughing or crying, the friend said. If mother is stressed, baby becomes stressed. If mother is joyful, baby is happy.
Pamela would sometimes shower at night, watching the water trickle off her full belly. Gianna would respond with vigorous kicking. She loved her daughter regardless of her condition, and deep down she sensed Gianna felt that love and returned it.
‘Thank you soooo much, God’
Doctors had decided earlier on that Pamela should be induced about two weeks before her due date to give Gianna, who would be smaller than if she were born at full term, an easier time traveling down the birth canal. Doctors began inducing Pamela on Monday, August 11 by means of a Foley Catheter, which once inserted is inflated with water to begin stretching the cervix. By Tuesday morning, Pamela was more dilated. She was given an epidural before a nurse broke her waters. Pamela was then put on the oxytocin drip to increase her contractions.
Labor began to move along quickly. Pamela did not have to tell nurses when she was having a contraction since every time one happened, Gianna would push visibly up on her belly. The contractions were so unusually visible that random nurses would peak into the delivery room just to see them.
“It looked like a mini-mountain on my right side at every contraction,” Pamela said.
Now Gianna’s head could be seen peaking out. The time came to push her out. But no matter how hard Pamela pushed, Gianna would not budge. Despite the baby’s fragility, the lead doctor suggested that a vacuum suction was needed to help the baby out. The plan worked and Gianna was born minutes later at 5:50 p.m.
But she was blue all over. “Is she dead? Did she die? Is she breathing?” Pamela remembers frantically yelling.
A team of waiting specialists whisked Gianna away to an adjoining room in an attempt to revive her. PJ accompanied them. While Pamela wanted nothing more than to hold her sweet little baby, staff kept telling her to “just wait.” The next 15 minutes seemed like an eternity for Pamela as she pleaded with every saint in heaven she could think of for Gianna’s life.
“I was demanding a chance this time – I wasn’t asking,” she said.
And then the little miracle Pamela and her family had so desperately been praying for happened. PJ returned with the news that Gianna was alive. She had been successfully intubated and was breathing with the help of the ventilator.
“I just cried and sobbed. ‘Thank you soooo much, God’ was all I could pray,” Pamela said.
A nurse wheeled Pamela into the room where Gianna was being kept alive by a breathing tube. Numerous wires monitored her vitals. By now she had pinked-up, a sign that the blood is circulating. Pamela marveled at Gianna’s beautiful head of dark hair and her full lips. She weighed a little under five pounds.
Pamela was finally able to reach out for the first time and touch her living daughter.
“She’s my baby and she’s beautiful,” Pamela remembers thinking. “What a fighter you are!”
A priest came to baptize the little girl into the Christian community. Pamela and PJ’s other children arrived just as the ceremony began.
“It was a beautiful and Holy-Spirit-infused moment,” she said.
After the ceremony, the children began to weep.
“Although they were happy to see Gianna alive, I think the mixture of the hospital setting, the power of the sacrament of baptism, and the flood of their child-like feelings was all too much for them to contain. But it was all good. They were hugging us, sobbing, and then laughing when the littlest one Macarius, who is 3, told them to ‘be quiet’ and ‘shushed’ them so they wouldn’t wake up Gianna,” she said.
Pamela and PJ were eventually left alone with the newest member of their family. “We just sat in the room with our newly born angel. We sang to her and talked to her and simply touched her,” she said.
Even with the ventilator helping her out, Gianna was still struggling to breathe. Her fragile broken body was making it difficult for her to stay alive. While she wasn’t in any immediate pain, doctors said no more could be done for her. Pamela and PJ were asked to decide when to take Gianna off the ventilator. They decided to sleep for a few hours and then wake up early to spend the entire day with their daughter before saying their first and last ‘good bye.’
“I didn’t want to be an emotional wreck from not sleeping, and my body was still shaking from birth,” Pamela recounted.
They spent all of Wednesday with Gianna.
“I let daddy hold his little girl,” Pamela said. “I sat next to him and watched this tiny person in her daddy’s big arms. I was able to kiss her around her tubes. Her skin was like silk. Her fingers gripped around my pinky.”
An ambulance arrived at 2:00 p.m. that afternoon to transfer Gianna and her parents to Canucks Place, a quiet homelike place where parents can peacefully spend the last moments with their children. The other children arrived to say a final farewell.
At six that evening, after Gianna had lived one full day, her tubes were removed.
“I held Gianna in my arms, as PJ stood beside me. We were alone with only the medical staff. They warned us it could take minutes or hours, but assured us there would be no pain, since she had been given morphine.”
Gianna took one last breath and then she died.
“And we grieved…we grieved hard,” Pamela said.
Gianna’s body was then gently washed in a bath. She was dressed in her white bunny sleeper and swaddled in her special baby blanket.
“We rocked her and walked with her, and held her — and she was at peace. She looked so much like a healthy, sleeping, beautiful baby — which actually made it harder,” Pamela said.
“One is never quite ready for certain moments in life. Have you ever held a dead child that was your own? My heart goes out to any who have. Time stops. And when you meditate on what this unit of measurement means — seconds, minutes, years, eternity — it suddenly becomes impossible to wrap one’s mind around it.”
Staff from the funeral home arrived and laid Gianna’s body on a stretcher. Her body was covered with a cloth. It was finished. Pamela remembers being consumed by an overwhelming feeling of emptiness. The next morning Canucks Place staff placed Gianna’s name on a special mantel with a lit candle as a remembrance to her life and death.
She was buried the following week. A Knights of Columbus honor guard was unexpectedly present at the funeral. The Knights told the parents that Gianna’s story exemplified what it means to protect life.
‘We treasured everything’
Pamela and PJ said they are “blessed” for the time spent with her daughter and would not trade it for anything in the world.
“Everything about her, including her club feet, her fragility, her brokenness, was all part of who she was. We treasured everything. We saw how broken she was and yet how beautiful she was in her brokenness. She highlighted for us the awe and beauty of the miracle of life,” said Pamela.
PJ said Gianna has had a “tremendous impact” on all of them. “My life and the lives of all our family have certainly been enriched by our time with Gianna,” he said.
PJ related how Gianna brought joy into their family at the news of her conception and now in the realization she is with God in heaven. She taught them to be patient as they learned little by little about the condition she struggled with. She helped them grow in faithfulness to God as they were forced to deepen their trust in him. She helped them learn to let go and humbly accept God’s will in their lives, trusting that “God will turn all things to good according to His will.”
PJ will always remember Gianna for her tremendous strength against all odds.
“We were told that she likely wouldn't make it to term, and if she did, that she likely wouldn't survive birth, and if she did that she may only live minutes. The 24 hours we spent with her after birth were both a gift and an example of her tremendous strength. Her strength inspired us to be strong too,” he said.
What the family will cherish the most about Gianna is the love they shared together.
“Pamela, myself, and our children have been touched by Gianna's love, and we love her dearly. We rejoice in that our little girl knew nothing but love.”
“We certainly wish we could have had more time with her. But as short as it was, it was long enough for her to have enriched our lives, for she taught us so much,” PJ said.
‘God gives us pathways to heaven’
Some people have asked the parents why God would allow this to happen to ‘good’ people who try their best to walk in God’s ways. How could a good God send them such a big problem?
“I understand these sentiments and that those who share them mean well,” said PJ. “However, through the grace of God, I thank God that Gianna was given to us, because so many people in this world would not have given a child like Gianna a chance. Thank God she was ours to care for.”
Pamela said she has never been angry once with God for all that happened.
“I have always had a childlike relationship with God. And I know He would never seek to hurt me. Whatever struggles He places in my life are for purposes He alone knows the reasons for.”
"Perhaps after hearing about her life, people will think twice when faced with the ‘choice’ we faced."
“It is through our trials and tribulations that God gives us pathways to heaven. No matter what God sends along our way, He will never give us a cross we can’t handle. He will help us if we embrace whatever suffering comes our way,” she said.
Pamela believes that difficult times, trials, and suffering are essentially a call from God for a person to grow spiritually in love and compassion. She already sees how Gianna has changed her life. She doesn’t stress out as much over small things. She finds herself more easily accepting the things she can’t change.
“You become a different person, more compassionate, more patient, more loving, kind, caring, and understanding,” she said.
Pamela said that some people have related to her that what she and PJ did for Gianna was brave, but she disagrees.
“It didn’t seem brave. I don’t know why people kept on telling us that. It just seemed that what we were doing was the common sense thing to do, honestly,” she said.
“Having a child who would be disabled, who would suffer, and who could die was scary, I’m not going to lie. As excited as we were to have Gianna, the scariness of it all, of living in that fear of the unknown, was sometimes overwhelming. But life is sacred in all its forms. Her life was sacred. Knowing this helped us to overcome our fears.”
It was people’s prayers, PJ said, that sustained them.
“We could almost physically feel the infusion of grace into our lives from the prayers of so many family, friends, religious, and even strangers.”
“We were coasting on grace,” Pamela added.
The parents believe the story of Gianna’s life is not yet a closed book.
Pamela originally wrote a blog about her experiences for her Olive Garden co-workers, but many other people discovered it and were touched by what they read. Complete strangers began contacting Pamela through social media, relating how they were moved by the story of Gianna’s life.
“In the end, we believe that God’s plan came through for our Gianna, even if that plan was only for one day. But perhaps the plan is still unfolding? Just look how she is touching lives by her story. Perhaps after hearing about her life, people will think twice when faced with the ‘choice’ we faced,” Pamela said.
Pamela and PJ will hold their little daughter in their hearts forever. The family will treasure the memories of Gianna’s life. Together they loved. Together they lost. Together they grew in an understanding of the mysterious workings of God.