A Healing Illness
Facing the unexpected, and inexplicable
Sep 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 01 • By PETER WEHNER
Bret Baier, host of the popular Fox News program Special Report with Bret Baier and an accomplished journalist at a young age, has an interesting professional story to tell. And in Special Heart he tells it, if only in a few chapters. Born in New Jersey and raised in Atlanta, Baier attended DePauw and from there, worked at local stations in Hilton Head, Rockford, Raleigh, and Atlanta. His big break came when, while working for the Fox Atlanta bureau, he traveled to Washington on September 11, 2001, to cover the response to the terrorist attacks. It turned out to be a one-way trip: The Fox brass decided they wanted Baier to cover the Pentagon, and thus began the second stage of his career.
The portrait of Baier in these early chapters is of a young man in a hurry. Captivated at an early age by politics and journalism, he was driven and hard-working, earnest, and determined never to be out-hustled. He knew what he wanted and found ways to get it, including wooing Amy Hills, whom he married in 2004. By the time his wife was pregnant with their first child, in 2007, Baier felt that he was on top of the world.
And then, in an instant, his world came crashing down. Just after delivery, Baier learned that his son Paul was born with several life-threatening heart defects. “Your baby has heart disease,” the Baiers were told by a cardiologist hours after Paul was born. “Heart disease can be simple or complex. Your son has a complex heart disease. He has a very complicated heart.” Five congenital defects were eventually diagnosed. And then, Baier writes, “Dr. [Gerald] Martin uttered the words that have played in my mind on a continual loop every day since: ‘If your son doesn’t have surgery within the next two weeks, he’s not going to make it.’ ”
The emotional core of this book centers on the weeks between Paul’s birth and his first operation: the initial terror and tears, the shock and disbelief, the anger and denial. After having been told of his son’s condition, Baier is candid in describing what he felt:
Those feelings soon gave way to a focused determination by the Baiers to do everything they could to support their child and his medical team in the face of this extraordinary ordeal. “In the days immediately following our turnaround moment in the Children’s emergency room,” Baier writes, “Amy and I became downright evangelical in our newfound mission—our decision—to transform ourselves into the two most positive, upbeat people on the planet. Not because we necessarily felt like it, but because we genuinely believed being positive and uplifting would have a direct impact on Paulie’s ability to fight and survive.”
The balance of Special Heart is about how the Baiers dealt with the first, and subsequent, open-heart surgeries, Paul’s unfolding awareness of his condition, his questions about it, and his bravery in facing it. Now 7 years old, Paul has undergone three open-heart procedures, seven angioplasties, and a stomach operation. And yet his spirit is undaunted, and his life is remarkably normal, a tribute both to Paul and to the tremendous advances in medical science.
Several themes run through this account, one of which is the vital role community can play in our lives. We’re told how both the Baier and Hills families rallied to the side of Bret, Amy, and Paul; how the Baiers have bonded with families whose children face similar challenges; and how they’ve grown in their trust in, and their affection for, the amazing medical team that saved Paul’s life. (Richard Jonas, M. D., one of the leading pediatric cardiovascular surgeons in the world, emerges as a terrifically impressive doctor.)
Throughout, Baier refers to the hospital staff as “family” and says the medical crew treating Paul dealt with him as if he were their son. The Baiers are sustained by a web of relationships, some of which started when they were born, some of which they married into, and still others that began after their son was diagnosed with heart disease. Together, friends and family provided the Baiers with encouragement, tender care, spiritual support, and medical guidance. I’m reminded of what anthropologists call “relationships of affinity,” which support us and keep us from being isolated in moments of genuine need. The Baiers were immeasurably helped by such relationships.
Another topic here is loss of control. Baier admits to struggling with his powerlessness: “Amy and I were a very happy couple,” he writes. “We had everything going for us—had all we needed. Our hopes, dreams, and future prospects were unlimited. Everyone said so. But now, none of that meant a thing. There was only one reality now; our son was extremely sick, and there was a chance he was going to die.” Later, he writes about “the pent-up insecurity of knowing I had zero control over anything that was going on.” Special Heart reveals a couple that first struggled with the loss of control and then, by necessity, came to accept it.
Of course, life is filled with unexpected turns, trials, and shattered expectations. The most joyful people are those who release rather than cling to expectations, who adjust to new circumstances rather than try to re-create ones lost in time. The Baiers eventually chose to focus their energies on the areas they could control—most especially, loving their son and being with him virtually around the clock—and release the rest to their Lord.
Which leads to a third theme: the Baiers’ increasing reliance on, and trust in, God. While they are lifelong Roman Catholics, their son’s condition made them more spiritually minded and prayerful. Baier writes about the succor they found in the chapel at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, how scriptural verses became touchstones for them, and how much they relied on, and asked for, prayer. They took comfort not in knowing how things would finally turn out but in knowing that God is faithful and can redeem all things, including pain and brokenness. With the prospect of losing their newborn child, the Baiers turned to God rather than turning on Him. Which explains why this is, finally, a book of gratitude—gratitude for the Baiers’ family and friends, for the medical team surrounding them, and for their son, the gift of life, and the giver of life.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.