Light Notes

This mother couldn’t breathe. Would she live to see her baby again?

Connie Snodgrass holds her daughter, Madelyn Grace, who was only three weeks old when her mother was placed on life support due to a rare cancer.
Connie Snodgrass holds her daughter, Madelyn Grace, who was only three weeks old when her mother was placed on life support due to a rare cancer. Courtesy Steve and Connie Snodgrass

Code blue! Code blue!

Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take …

A rush of footsteps filled the hospital hallway, racing toward the young mother’s bedside.

but by the moments that take our breath away.

Across town, a 3-week old baby and two young daughters wait, the beloved quote hanging silently in their home – while her life hung in the balance.

Connie Snodgrass knows well the breath she’s been given – the strength she reached for in those moments, and the journey that followed.

“I’d had difficulty breathing, short of breath,” Connie said, reflecting how her life-threatening situation began. “I thought, ‘I’m old – 38 – for having babies. And I’m out of shape, that’s a given.’ But no, I was full of cancer! That’s why I couldn’t breathe – but we didn’t know that.”

There had been worry enough before little Madeline Grace was born; years earlier cholestasis in pregnancy had taken one baby girl at birth, a heartbreaking event that still makes Connie weep. But with a healthy delivery this time, a new love in her arms and husband Steve by her side, any concerns about shortness of breath were pushed aside.

Tiny pink dresses, soft receiving blankets and a welcoming rocking chair awaited. But in little more than two weeks after settling in at home, Connie was in crisis, diagnosed with rare metastatic choriocarcinoma – a cancer even more rare after a full-term pregnancy.

A plea for prayer circled the globe.

“They didn’t even count how many tumors were in my lungs, it was astronomical — and I had lesions on my liver,” Connie said, recalling the beginning of her stay at Brookwood Medical Center in Birmingham, Alabama. “Saturday morning, I crashed and they called Code blue because I was in respiratory failure.”

My grace is sufficient for thee …

“It’s just a premonition about patients that you get sometimes who are about to get really sick. I just wanted to check on her early in the morning – I don’t think I was on call – and I went by … and she was doing poorly,” said University of Alabama at Birmingham Gynecologic Oncologist Dr. Ronald Alvarez MD, recalling how he worked with the team to get Connie into ICU and onto life support. “It’s always a God thing in these situations.”

For 14 days Connie lay comatose and intubated, the ventilator breathing for her, the chemotherapy aggressively fighting the cancer.

“Usually choriocarcinoma cancer is responsive to chemotherapy and over 85% of people will be cured from it,” said Dr. Alvarez. “But they can also get so sick, like she was, where you can just die from being exceptionally sick. That was an issue for her that she could have died. The acute phase of her illness could have killed her.”

My strength is made perfect in weakness ...

Family stayed bedside. Prayers were lifted up. Faith clung to God’s promises.

“My dad was sitting with me during that time – he liked to talk even though I was unconscious – and he said, ‘Connie, the Sunday lesson was about the woman who reached out to touch Jesus.’”

Her dad added, “The timing of her action – she sort of reaches out her hand into the sky – was coincident with my comments about the lady who touched the hem of the garment of Christ,” said Mark Russell – a man with over 40 years of cancer care treatment as a medical dosimetrist. “This was the first response we’d had in many days, and nodding her head was something I’d not expected.”

“I don’t remember this,” Connie said. “But he told me this later that he had asked, ‘Are you reaching out to touch Jesus?’ And I nodded, ‘Yes.’”

This divine “moment” occurred shortly before one of Connie’s medical crises was resolved. Over the days, her health steadily improved. Chemotherapy protocol continued.

“Four weeks to the day I had entered the hospital, I went home,” Connie said, reflecting on that long-awaited day in June of 2010. “It was amazing! No oxygen!”

She could breathe – healed because of her doctors’ modern medical tools and the strength she’d been given, a strength she believes was heaven-sent.

Take a deep breath. To this day Connie is cancer-free.

“I think the Lord works miracles every day,” Dr. Alvarez said. “She was critically ill with a really critical cancer, and she got better from her cancer – from being so critically ill. God does all the work, we just try to stay out of the way,” he added with a smile.

And the familiar quote about “moments” that graced her home? The words now held new meaning because of her cancer journey.

“When we got home, I looked at that and I said to Steve, ‘I don’t think I want to hang that in our room because we’ve just had moments that took my breath away – and they were very physical!” Connie said.

And so, she replaced the wall art with a piece a friend had given her – a reminder of the moment she reached for the hem of the Great Physician:

“My grace is sufficient for thee. My strength is made perfect in weakness.

Lucy Note: Connie, husband Steve and their daughters, now live in Sherman, Texas, where he is a church pastor and she is the Christian school administrator.

Lucy Luginbill is a syndicated Tri-City Herald columnist, religion editor and career public television producer and host. Her popular Light Notes column reflects inspirational and faith-focused stories. She’s been working in journalism for more than 30 years.
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