(Written on March 20, 2020, by Joanna Blanding, mother to Mateo)
It's been four days since our beloved little Mateo passed on.
The doctors suspected brain death as early as March 6. Subsequently, he was pronounced brain dead on March 10.
It was devastating news.
The docs asked us, "Would you like us to legalize his death now on paper? Alternatively, we can pull off the ventilator and his heart will stop within minutes."
Those were not the options we were okay to hear.
We wanted a third option.
"If you say that he's brain dead, then we'll wait for his heartbeat to naturally stop," my husband said to which I had already agreed. We didn't have to tell the doctors that we were believing for a miracle.
Docs say they won't accede to that request, unfortunately. The body may continue to have a heartbeat with the help of the ventilator for days and weeks. Not unplugging is just "delaying the inevitable," in their words. The body will start deteriorating and it'll be evident in the skin. "You wouldn't want to see your child in that condition."
If Mateo is already dead, why would they be so concerned about the quality of his body? We were thinking beyond the body.
"Is it because of religious belief?" one of the doctors asked.
"We don't have to explain ourselves, doctor. It's our personal decision," Mike kindly responded.
The doctors and their team looked very stressed. We were stubborn. They had to explain what brain death is to us all over again.
Brain death is the total and irreversible loss of all brain functions. When the brain is dead, the human is dead, medically speaking.
We knew it was that. We knew Mateo was physically dead.
But also, he still had breath in his lungs and blood pumping through his heart.
We were thinking, if God will choose to do a miracle, this is the best time. It'll be so like His style to pull off His trick when things are impossible in human sense. We had hope in us.
We just had to buy time from the doctors. We didn't want to make any decision between the two options we were given. They were kind enough to give us a few days.
Mike and I walked out of the doctors' room quietly.
There is nothing usual and light about the conversation. It wasn't like the news I had received before that our family had gone bankrupt—a few times over in my younger years. It wasn't like that call reporting that my parents had been taken hostage in 2005. It wasn't like that time when Mike said he got retrenched at work and we might have just a few months to stay in Singapore while I was seven months pregnant. It wasn't even like the message I received less than two years ago that my father had passed on. This felt very different. This news pierced me inside so deeply that it challenged my belief for a moment that there is a God.
"Are you really there?"
"If you are, are you going to come through?"
"I feel so hurt! Why wouldn't you make it stop?"
These were just some of the dozens of thoughts that I had as Mike and I were sitting at the waiting room at the ICU reeling from the recent words we had just heard.
We walked back to Mateo's room. I cried so much beside him. I heard myself sobbing like a little child to her Daddy. I was pleading. I was asking all the questions I had. I was pouring out my heart to this Daddy who I can't seem to deny is there.
Two of our pastors and their wives came into the room. I was oblivious of their presence. They have been very good to us. All I could say was, "Wash your hands."
I curled up in the chair in the room, crying like a baby. I wanted to tell the people in the room, "Please ask God to listen to my cries, please. I'm getting tired." But I was exhausted, so I just gave the ladies a dull hug and walked out.
That late afternoon, Mike and I went to bed and slept for 14 long hours.
The morning felt different from the time we cried ourselves to sleep. There was new energy so we could get up, play with our other child, and go back to see Mateo again in the hospital.
This couldn't be more true:
"The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness." — Lamentations 3:22-23
Key, I guess, was sleep. You won't get new mercies if you don't sleep.
That steadfast love we felt that morning wasn't the sort that'll make us want to party. It was just the right amount to make us not despair.
So we went back to Mateo to face the new phase of the battle—to believe for the impossible.
Mike and I, once again, agreed that we wouldn't be the ones pulling the plug, nor giving that command to the doctors. We will pray for a miracle and believe it with all our hearts that God can still wake him up from being brain dead, if God chooses that. After all, Jesus, God, made Lazarus rise from the dead (John 11:38-44)!
As a friend described it, "It is a ridiculous thing to believe in." But a valid belief nonetheless because that's what God said,
Jesus replied, "Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done. — Matthew 21:21
So we kept praying, kept asking for prayers from our prayer warriors, and believed the prayers with all our hearts.
The days weren't easy. Each time we'd wake up, we just had enough sustenance to go about our days. There were a lot of tears. Reading encouraging messages from friends made the burden lighter. And whenever we ended the day with Mateo still unconscious, we'd pray to God that he'd give us the strength to face the next day and whatever it would hold for us.
For six days, we walked around the hospital, between it and our house, and to a nearby mall for a change in scenery carrying the fact that we had a son in a bed—pronounced medically dead.
From the day Mateo was admitted to the hospital to the day before he passed on, we had friends come to the hospital's atrium to worship and pray. These sessions increased our resolve to keep believing in God in spite of the troubles. Words from the Bible were spoken. And we can't deny the truth of those words. We have learned, especially in the last three years through the Alpha course, how indisputable the Bible is. Even archaeology and world-renowned scientists talk about the veracity of the Bible—and anyone else can have the chance to see that for themselves only if they give it a chance before dissing it without fair inspection.
I could have lost my faith in God if I didn't expose myself to the words of the Bible through friends praying it over us over a chat group, personal messages, or praying them over us in person. I can't deny the power of those words.
In the morning of March 16, we sought out a second opinion from a friend's paediatric neurologist friend. We were actually just buying time from Mateo's doctors, so we don't have to make the decision ourselves about pulling the plug.
We didn't know what we wanted to hear from the doctor. Firstly, Mateo's doctors are exemplary. They cared for Mateo so well and did their best to keep him alive. But we thought it would give us peace of mind if we take another earthly step as his parents.
This doctor reinforced what we had already heard from Mateo's doctors. She also took on a Christian perspective, being a believer herself. If I remember it correctly, she affirmed the trickiness of standing between science and faith.
In my head, which I was very unenergetic to utter, "Science and faith can coexist. We can do what we can based on what we know, and have faith in God to make it right, whether we do things correctly or incorrectly."
This reminded me of Mike's response to my anxious commentary about the ICU situation around Mateo during his last days. I said, "We need to talk to the doctors and nurses. They are no longer giving Mateo any more of the usual interventions as before his brain death." I felt that the doctors were really resolved that Mateo was dead, afterall, medically, he was.
Mike comforted me and said, "Okay, we can ask the doctors why that is so. But if we are going to believe in God's miracle, we should just let the doctors do what they think they need to do or not do, and let God do His thing despite that."
The doctors also explained to us that it would be futile at that point to be providing medical interventions apart from the ventilator because Mateo's body won't be responding anyway.
For me, we agreed to both science and faith.
Two other things can coexist apparently—pain and faith. We are not necessarily free from pain as we believe in God. The strength that people say they saw in us as we were facing this battle was "impressive." I had to think over again what "strength" they were seeing. I guess it was the grace of God that comes from admitting to Him that we are in pain, and believing that He will take us through it.
But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. — 2 Corinthians 12:9
As we couldn't control Mateo's situation anymore, we focused on what we can control: our attitude towards our marriage by loving and serving each other, and our relationship with our family and friends—particularly our parents.
In the afternoon of March 16, we received a call from one of our pastors. He knew what had been going on. He suggested that we ask our parents what they would do if they were in our situation.
We had not involved them in the decision making process at that point. We thought of so many repercussions of doing so: it might burden them, or we might feel pressured to accede to their preference.
That same afternoon, we decided to sit with Mike's parents at one point, and with my mom on another instance. They were both very meaningful and touching conversations. We felt they were honored by us asking for their opinion.
As soon as we had finished talking to them, the ICU called.
"Daddy and Mommy, you should come here, Mateo's heartbeat had dropped so much."
Strangely, we didn't panic upon hearing that. My heart made a sad face but not a bawling one.
As we were packing up at the restaurant ten minutes after the previous call, the nurse called again, "Daddy and Mommy, Mateo's heart has stopped."
Mike and I held hands, took a taxi and headed to Mateo.
God heard our plea that if He would choose to take Mateo, He just puts his heart to rest without us having to do it ourselves.
We spent about an hour, just us, carrying our son in our arms one last time. He had gained so much weight because of inflammation. Despite that, he still looked adorable, not in any way looking deteriorated as the doctors warned us if he stayed brain dead for longer on a ventilator.
Mike sang to him "Summertime" one last time. It's the kids favorite song for when we put them to sleep.
Mike wrote this update to our prayer warriors:
"We believed with all of our hearts until Mateo’s last breath that God would show up and do something miraculous. And in hindsight, God did show up. God did do something miraculous with Mateo’s seven-month life. It wasn’t the miracle that we had been praying for, but it’s the miracle that God chose. So it’s the miracle that we will rejoice in.
While we’ll never know why this has all happened, we do know, without a shadow of a doubt, that our God is so good. Our God is so faithful. And while Mateo’s earthly life may be over, Mighty Mateo’s miracle is not over. God is still moving through Mateo’s story."
On March 21, we celebrated Mateo's life with a few friends and our family here in Singapore. Here is a video that summarizes, though not capturing the entire picture of it, Mateo's short but impact-filled seven months of life.
The #MightyMateo Legacy lives on.
Our little Mateo was highly involved in our efforts to fight online sex trafficking of children in the Philippines during his seven months of life. We believe that he'd love for us to continue this legacy.
#MightyMateo's parents document their journey through grief towards healing.