Olivia Connealy was a happy, secure six-year old when a not-so-ordinary nightmare turned real. A violent seizure shook Olivia from her sleep. Complications followed that caused a perilous swelling of the brain and led to a three-month in-patient sojourn at Children’s Mercy. The life that the Connealys enjoyed was over. They entered into a new world only as brave as they could make it.
For all of the hospital’s good work, Olivia would never be the same, not even close. The attack robbed Olivia of her verbal ability and many of her motor skills and left her with a severe, lingering form of epilepsy that manifested itself in as many as 30 seizures a day. Olivia’s parents, Amanda and Casey, her three siblings, and her grandparents have done their best to help Olivia lead a meaningful life. Now 10,
she attends school in Lenexa and has a nurse watch over her at night, but the Connealys resigned themselves to the likelihood that all care going forward would be palliative and focused on improving Olivia’s quality of life.
An Unexpected Hope
The one option the Connealys had not exhausted was prayer. They started a Facebook page in Olivia’s behalf—The Lord Is Her Shepherd—not to raise money but “to join our army of prayer for her to join this group and follow her story.” The Connealys were not alone in their commitment to prayer. In 2005, two local scholars, Dr. Mike Scherschligt and Dr. Troy Hinkel, started a public association of lay faithful— the Holy Family School of Faith—to share the fullness of their Catholic faith through live events, pilgrimages, videos, and, importantly, podcasts.
Each evening, Scherschligt gathers with family and friends to say the rosary in the form of a podcast. The podcast has caught on, and today thousands of people throughout the world join him and his family in prayer. Upon learning of Olivia’s condition, Scherschligt began to ask for prayers on her behalf.
Realizing the limits of their profession, many physicians have turned to prayer as well. Among them is Luke Tomycz, a pediatric neurosurgeon associated with New Jersey’s most prominent health-care system. A regular listener, Dr. Tomycz learned of Olivia’s plight through the rosary podcast.
Tomycz stepped into the Connealy’s life right out of central casting. Young, handsome, congenial, he could play himself were a movie to be made about Olivia’s life. But that movie won’t be made, and here I caution the reader. Not all miracles are cinematic. Some are much subtler, more thought-provoking.
Tomycz came to the task with just the right skill set. He began his formal neurosurgical training at Vanderbilt University and developed a specialty in, among other areas, complex epilepsy surgery. Indeed, he is one of a very few dual-trained, pediatric and endovascular neurosurgeons in the country, and has spoken at conferences throughout the world.
Through the School of Faith, Tomycz made contact with the Connealys. After some extended discussions with the family about new therapies that have become available, he and they thought it worthwhile to try one more surgery, this time at the Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey.
Although “Hackensack” may sound like a punch line, the hospital is New Jersey’s best. I can attest to that. I have spent time visiting relatives there. It is a serious place. That said, modern medicine has its limitations. My oldest brother died there. He died in good hands, but he died. At some point, tragedy finds all of us. The one sure thing prayer can do is help us cope when tragedy strikes. To ask more of it is to acknowledge God’s existence. To demand more is to challenge God’s supremacy. I don’t recommend the latter.
The logistics of surgery in a distant place are daunting. This problem was solved in a way that Amanda did not expect or pray for. She has asked me to avoid specifics to help preserve the anonymity of the angel who, upon learning of Olivia’s surgery, intervened to get
the extended Connealy family home from New Jersey. The details are really kind of cool, but I will leave them to the reader’s imagination. What happened was a miracle only if we consider the unforced, unrewarded bounty of perfect strangers miraculous—especially strangers of a different faith.
A Small Step, and Reality
The surgery took place on Sept. 20. Olivia did not leave the surgical suite doing cartwheels. She could, however, track people speaking to her with her eyes, a seemingly insignificant improvement, save to those who have the occasion to speak to her. To them, it was huge, but there has been no real improvement since. For now, at least, the Connealys have been denied a Hollywood ending. They have reconciled themselves to their reality.
What they have not done, how-ever, is what happens all too often in the movies—reject the God who denied them their miracle of choice. They rejoice instead in the small miracle of everyday fellowship, know-ing that tens of thousands of people world-wide have prayed for their Olivia, a girl those thousands have never met.
As Amanda knows all too well, those who face a daily challenge know how important it is for others to step up freely and share the burden. Instead of seeing Olivia’s fate as a curse or something like it, she sees it as an opportunity to experience the goodness of others. “Who are we to question God’s purpose?” Amanda asks. “We don’t regret any of what we have gone through.”
For this most recent “Giving Tuesday,” Amanda raised money not for Olivia, but for the Holy Family School of Faith. “These people are moving mountains,” says Amanda. “And I can’t imagine what the past year would’ve looked like without their prayer support.”