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Meet the 'Miracle Class'

Buoyed by a community's outpouring of love and prayer, these four first-graders at a small Catholic school in Pewamo survived life-threatening illnesses.

By Afton Caterina | Photography by Lindsay Wilkinson

Thomas has a big, happy smile and loves to learn about Jesus. Kaine is an avid squirrel hunter. Maddie is known for her gentle laugh and kindness. Brody loves all sports, especially the ones his dad coaches.

They’re ordinary first-graders, with extraordinary stories of survival. They are the reason the first grade at St. Joseph Catholic School in Pewamo has become known as the “miracle class.”

Thomas, the son of Michael and Leah Kramer, was born in 2009 with a rare combination of heart defects and was not expected to live. Undergoing three open-heart surgeries and one brain surgery, he became the first-known child in the world to survive corrective surgery for this condition.

Staffers at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor called him the “miracle baby,” and for good reason, says his mother, Leah. “We were never shy about begging for prayers, and we saw miracles happen before our very eyes.”

As baby Thomas was taken into his first open-heart surgery at 3 days old, future classmate Kaine Simon was recovering down the hall. Kaine, born without a soft spot and room for his brain to grow, required surgery to separate the fused bones in his skull at just 5 months old.

A few months later, two other future St. Joseph classmates waged medical battles of their own. Madeline George developed a rare and incurable heart disease at 9 months that would require a heart transplant. Brody Smith, diagnosed with leukemia at 18 months, underwent a bone-marrow transplant and nearly died from complications.

Yet here they are, the “miracle class” – Thomas, Kaine, Madeline and Brody – finishing up their first grade year and itching for summer vacation to begin, just like any other first-grader. Though each of their stories is different, their parents consider their survival a miracle. They see God’s hand not only in the healing of their children, but also in the overwhelming community support, the care of the doctors and medical professionals and the strengthening of their faith and that of others.

Each family expresses gratitude for the support of the people of St. Joseph, who embraced them with countless prayers, meals, child care, financial and moral support.

Parishioners came to the Kramers’ home to rock Thomas, do housework and fill the 32 medication syringes required every day, Leah recalls. Parishioners provided meals for months, and the school sponsored a fundraiser to help the family with expenses.

As Brody battled serious liver damage stemming from radiation after his bone-marrow transplant, the community (pop. 475) held a benefit that drew 1,300 people. The benefit enabled Brody’s dad, Corey, to take a six-month unpaid leave from work to care for his other five children and commute daily to the hospital to spend time with his gravely ill son and his wife, Robin.

The generosity seemed to beget more generosity. “We paid it forward anytime we’d hear of someone with cancer,” says Corey. Kaine’s mother, Emily Simon, agreed, saying, “Now when we hear about somebody going through a hard time, we do the same things that other people did for us.

“The community was just amazing,” says Emily. “We would randomly have checks mailed to us or food dropped off regularly.” Kara, Madeline George’s mother, recalls, “When Maddie was sick, people would even come and clean the house for us; it made a huge impact.”

THE POWER OF PRAYER
Perhaps even more staggering than the material generosity was the number of prayers the community offered on behalf of the children. Kara George credits the community’s prayers for the miracle of her daughter’s survival. After waiting only two months, Maddie received her heart two days after her first birthday. The wait time is generally from six months to two years. “I remember just praying to God that this was her miracle, and she would get another chance at life. I was also praying for the other family that had lost a child,” says Kara, pausing to wipe away tears. After a successful transplant surgery, they were home in a record time of nine days.

“Three times the [St. Joseph parishioners] met at the church and had an hour of prayer for healing,” says Brody’s dad, Corey. “They’d say continuous rosaries,” and some parishioners committed to a three-day bread and water fast on Brody’s behalf. The school children at St. Joseph also offered prayers and rosaries for the families. “There is power in prayer, especially when many are praying at the same time,” says Leah. “We could feel the prayers.”

The entire community joined in praying a novena to St. Therese for Brody in September 2010, when he was close to death. “Looking back to when he started showing signs of improvement, it was right around the time that novena ended,” Corey recalls. Robin had prayed for St. Thérèse’s intercession daily, and kept a small statue of the Little Flower, as she is called, on Brody’s bedside table.

Unbeknownst to the Smiths, St. Thérèse had also accompanied the Kramer family in their fight for Thomas’ life. When Thomas was in the thick of surgeries and close to death, Leah begged the saints to surround her child while she couldn’t be there. “The Blessed Mother and St. Therese were my special prayer partners,” she explains.

For Leah and Michael, one moment along Thomas’ miraculous journey stands out. Four months after his last heart surgery, Thomas contracted the H1N1 virus and became very ill. Waiting for a room in the busy ICU, Michael and Leah prayed for relief as Thomas burned with a fever of 105. An extraordinary minister of holy Communion offered them Communion. Michael received, kissed Thomas and, with his lips still on his baby’s hot forehead, he whispered a prayer: “Please, God, I know you have so many plans for him … please, in your name, let him live.”

After that, “His breath rate went down to normal, and his fever went away within a half hour,” Michael recalls. Shocked by his improvement, the doctors asked what they had done.

They responded simply: “We prayed.”

 

Sidebar
'Jesus, Amen': A small child's faith leaves a lasting imprint 
Due to his surgeries and complications, Thomas Kramer experienced developmental setbacks that limited his vocabulary to around 20 words. So his parents were shocked when, at just 18 months old, he began saying the name of Jesus and speaking of him regularly.

“Thomas found a children’s picture Bible,” shares his mother, Leah. “He paged through it quickly, but, when he got to the Stations of the Cross, he stopped. He would bow his head, fold his little hands and say ‘Jesus, amen.’”

He began to have heavenly visions, seeing Jesus where no one else could – at home, in the church and even once at the grocery store. He often talked about seeing Mary, St. Joseph, St. Thérèse and angels. Sometimes, he would look up, point and say, “There is Jesus and the other guys.” He would beg to visit Jesus in the church, and on the days he was most desperate, they would enter to find that adoration of the Blessed Sacrament was happening.

Thomas became particularly attached to St. Thérèse and “Momma Mary,” as he called Mary, speaking of them affectionately and describing them as beautiful. A doctor assured his parents that he was not  hallucinating. His talk of heavenly friends became a normal part of the Kramers’ lives.

It stopped when he was about 3, when he said Mary whispered a secret to him and kissed him on his cheek.  He no longer has any memory of any of this, but it left its imprint on his family’s faith, and on those with whom they have shared these remarkable events. When his father, Michael, goes to Communion, “Now I know that’s God. I know God exists,” he says. “I don’t pray there’s a God, I don’t wish there’s a God; I know it. And now I know how to talk to him.”

Photo description: (from left) Kaine Simon, Thomas Kramer, Madeline George and Brody Smith.