By Richard Willing, USA TODAY
ARLINGTON, Va. — A 26-year-old pregnant woman with cancer whose brain function ceased last month is being kept alive with a respirator in hopes she can have a very premature baby who has a chance to survive.
"I hate seeing her on those darned machines," says Jason Torres, with son Peter, 2.
Susan Torres, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), lost consciousness May 7 when an undiagnosed brain tumor caused a stroke while she dined at home. Her husband, Jason Torres, says doctors told him Susan's brain functions have stopped. (Related graphic: A closer look at Susan's baby)
Torres, also 26, says he decided to keep Susan on life support when doctors at Virginia Hospital Center here offered him the chance to disconnect the machines after they determined that she would not recover. He says he believes this is what his wife would have wanted.
A hospital spokesperson did not return calls and e-mails to discuss the case.
Against long odds, the baby Susan was carrying when she was stricken appears to be thriving after nearly 21 weeks of gestation, Torres says. If she can stay alive another month, and the cancer stays away from her uterus, the baby could be delivered and have a chance of surviving, he says. The couple has a 2-year-old son, Peter.
"I hate seeing her on those darned machines," Torres says, "and I hate using her as a husk, a carrying case, because she herself is worth so much more. But Susan really wanted this baby. And she's a very — how should I put this? — a willful lady. That's probably why she's made it this far."
Since 1977, at least nine comatose women have given birth in the USA, according to research by the University of Connecticut's medical center. Women with aggressive melanoma, the skin cancer that spread to Susan's brain, have borne children in reported cases in the USA, the United Kingdom and Canada, though not all survived.
Susan's doctors tell Torres they know of no cases in which a brain-dead mother with melanoma has delivered a child, he says.
Torres has quit his job as a commercial printing salesman and has moved into Susan's hospital room. He speaks to his wife, making small talk about the family and letting her know what's on his schedule for the day. For Torres, the routine is something solid to grasp in a life he says "was blown to pieces" nearly six weeks ago and continues to be rocked by aftershocks.
Susan, for instance, has had pneumonia recently and is fighting a persistent fever. Torres says the couple's son is staying with grandparents but continues to ask, "Where's Mommy?" Saying "in the hospital" is wearing out as an answer, Torres says. And Torres' relationship with God, whom he has loved since childhood, is showing signs of strain. "Some days," says Torres, an active Catholic, "I am pretty damned angry with him."
A bond formed quickly
Torres and Susan, classmates at the University of Dallas, a Catholic liberal arts college, met during their sophomore year in Rome, while on the college's semester abroad program. Torres, large and blocky, says he was looking for a study partner who would help him finish his lessons quickly, so he could "hit the bars" with his rugby playing pals.
Susan, a serious student with a competitive streak of her own, fit the bill. The couple fell for each other quickly, firming up the bond through board games such as Monopoly and Risk.
"She'd dance around the room when she beat me" — and glower if Torres won, he says. It reminded Torres, the third of seven children, of the dynamics of his large family in Manassas, Va. Susan's good looks — blonde and willowy at about 5-foot-10 and 125 pounds — didn't hurt either.
Susan, from a vaguely Protestant background, became a Roman Catholic during their senior year. Hours after she was baptized, he asked her to marry him. "I figured my chances were better if I got her when she was in the mood for saying yes," he says.
The couple married a year out of college, in May 2002, and welcomed son Peter 13 months later.
Susan, a biology major, liked her job working on malaria vaccines at NIH, Torres says. But she liked being a mother even more and was thrilled to become pregnant again at the beginning of 2005.
Susan had first developed melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, as a teenager in Houston, but had been cancer-free for nearly nine years.
So when Susan began to have headaches and nausea early last month, Torres says, there was no reason to suspect it was anything more than the miseries of early pregnancy. On May 6, the couple made an emergency room visit, where Susan was rehydrated, fed some bland crackers and sent home to rest.
The next night, while he was feeding Susan, "she just stopped," Torres says. Using techniques he had learned as a lifeguard, Torres restarted his wife's breathing. Emergency medical technicians arrived in minutes. Four hours later, a still-dazed Torres was standing outside an operating room and hearing from a neurosurgeon that cancer had invaded Susan's brain.
A day after, when it was clear Susan had survived surgery, Torres faced an agonizing choice: keeping his wife on life support, with a slim chance of producing a life though perhaps disabled baby, or allowing her to die.
Unspoken, but hovering like a cloud: Picking the first option would be hugely costly. He'd be ground down by unimaginable debt. The couple has health insurance but expects it will cover only a fraction of the cost, currently running at least $7,500 a day, he says.
On a high school religion test, he once tackled a similar ethical problem — can you harm an unborn child in order to save its mother? But that was hypothetical. The exercise didn't offer much help here.
He and Susan had never talked about what to do in such circumstances. But Torres remembered that when Susan was pregnant with Peter, the couple had been offered tests to determine whether the child had Down syndrome or other genetic disorders. Susan, Torres recalls, was offended by the implication that if the child was compromised, she should end her pregnancy. She turned down the test.
That memory, and a nurse's advice to "think of what Susan would want," clarified matters for Torres, he says.
'Not a glimmer of doubt'
"There's not a glimmer of doubt in my mind that this is what she would have wanted," he says. "Any chance at all to save the baby, and Susan would have said, 'Let's go for it.' "
The road since then has been full of bumps. Susan contracted pneumonia, fought it off, then developed a fever that spiked at 104 degrees. When hospital attendants attempted to move her bed into a lab for tests, Susan's blood pressure fluctuated wildly. Her cancer, so far, seems to have stayed out of her uterus. But doctors give him no guarantees that will continue.
It's been a tough month in other parts of Torres' world. Two of his four grandparents have fallen ill. An uncle, who has cerebral palsy, is in declining health. Peter, who turned 2 on June 3, is beginning to connect his mother's long absence with "the idea that something is wrong," Torres says.
It's difficult to watch Peter gravitate toward other women Susan's age who cross his path, Torres says. It's at best a mixed blessing to consider that he probably won't remember any of this, including his mother's features and the sound of her voice and the birthday dinner she had to miss.
"How many rocks are they going to throw in your cart before you can't pull it anymore" he says he asks himself. "The answer, apparently, is a lot."
Torres says he doesn't understand why his family has been singled out for suffering.
His mother, Karen — "she's way, way Catholic" — has told him "when the innocent suffer, great good is let loose in the world, and souls who wouldn't otherwise have gotten in reach heaven." That's great, Torres says, but these days, his faith requires something more tangible. "I'm like, 'OK, but can I get a list of those souls, in writing?' "
Right now, the target is mid-July, when Susan will be about 25 weeks pregnant — 15 weeks short of a full pregnancy. That's the gestation age, doctors tell Torres, where a baby can survive though with a heightened risk of brain damage and vision and developmental problems.
Torres' goal is for Susan and the baby to reach the 30-week mark, when such risks are greatly diminished.
Torres knows that the baby's delivery date, when and if it comes, will be bittersweet. After the baby is born, Susan's body will be anointed in the Catholic tradition, and she'll be allowed to die.
"That could be a little rough," he says.
"But I'm not focused there yet. The question I keep asking myself is: When this is over, do I get to take a baby home?"