Melissa Villalobos woke up on May 15, 2013, to find herself in a pool of blood.
That morning she was alone with her four children. Her husband, David, had left the family home in Chicago earlier that morning and was just then boarding a flight to Atlanta for a business meeting.
Bleeding had been noticed some weeks earlier during the first trimester of this, her sixth pregnancy. An ultrasound had shown that the placenta had become partially detached from the uterine wall, “so there was a hole in the placenta and that hole was allowing blood to escape,” Melissa explained to the Register July 22. To make matters worse, she had developed a subchorionic hematoma, a blood clot two and a half times the size of her unborn baby. This had lodged in the fetal membrane.
Her doctor ordered immediate bed rest for Villalobos.
But this was easier said than done. Melissa had four small children, aged 6, 5, 3 and 1. Although the 36-year-old mother had formerly practiced as a lawyer, her husband was the family breadwinner now. He had a high-pressure job that regularly took him away from home. No family members were close at hand to help: Melissa had been brought up in St. Louis, and David was raised in Texas. Apart from a few neighbors and friends, they were alone: Six months’ bed rest until the birth of their new child was nearly impossible.
In any event, the bleeding continued, and was getting worse since Melissa was admitted to a hospital emergency room on May 10, 2013. At that time, the medics warned the couple about a possible miscarriage. If the baby survived the pregnancy, they said, she would probably be born prematurely with attendant complications. The medical prognosis was heartbreaking, and now, less than five days later, the worst seemed to be happening.
Seeking Heavenly Aid
Sadly, David and Melissa had been here before. In February 2013, Melissa’s fifth pregnancy had ended in miscarriage, and Blessed John Henry Newman had been a part of that story, too. In that earlier pregnancy, the doctors, after detecting no heartbeat for weeks, had offered the mother a procedure to remove the unborn baby. Melissa refused. She was determined to carry the child to delivery, even if she knew the child could not live.
Perhaps no one, other than David, understood the grief that Melissa carried in her heart during those weeks before that first miscarriage. As she put it, at that time, she feared “the grief of that miscarriage would kill me of a broken heart.” So she prayed. The person to whom she prayed was a 19th-century English Catholic convert whom she had seen discussed on an EWTN television show and then whose prayer card had been brought home unexpectedly by her husband and now stood on a mantelpiece in the family home: “Please, Cardinal Newman, help me with this.”
Melissa Villalobos prayed as never before. She prayed for the child she carried; she prayed that, if her baby died, she could still believe, still trust, still love the God who had sent her this cross. But, most of all, she prayed that God’s will be done.
Her prayer was heard. As the dead child was buried, Melissa Villalobos remained faithful to the God of love. She knew that her prayer had been heard: that her faith, hope and love were intact, and that Newman’s intercession had been instrumental in this. Today, of that time, she simply says: “I lost the baby. But I had kept my faith — thanks to Cardinal Newman, my rock.”
With the experience of her miscarriage still fresh in her heart and mind and concern for who would tend for her four young children, this young mother lay in bed, helpless, in a pool of her own blood on the morning of May 15, 2013.
Terrified thoughts ran through her consciousness: “I was afraid … of losing the baby and what would become of the four children downstairs if I were to bleed to death. How would they be raised? These things were crashing through my mind.”
Although she continued to bleed, she delayed calling 911, worried about her children should she be admitted to the hospital. Finally, she knew she had to call an ambulance, but she then realized she didn’t have her cellphone near her. She also knew that in trying to find it and make a call she would cause even more damage to her body.
Eventually she struggled to her feet. She began to make her way downstairs. Somehow she managed to get the children all in the kitchen and watched as they helped fix breakfast. Then, firmly, mustering all the strength she had, she ordered them: “Don’t get out of your seats no matter what!” They fell silent as their mother left the room. Melissa ascended the stairs.
At last she reached the bathroom. She locked the door behind her, fearing the children would see the blood on the floor. The next thing she remembers was opening her eyes after having collapsed. Now a feeling even more debilitating overtook her physical weakness: desperation.
Was it on this bathroom floor that she was to die, Melissa asked herself, while downstairs her four children sat silently waiting for her?
She prayed: “Please, Cardinal Newman, make the bleeding stop!”
“‘Please, Cardinal Newman, make the bleeding stop.’ Those were my exact words. Just then, as soon as I finished the sentence, the bleeding stopped.”
She knew instantly that something physical had changed. As she checked, something else occurred. “Just then the scent of roses filled the bathroom,” Melissa recalls, “the strongest scent of roses I’ve ever smelled.” In hindsight, she says: “The injury was unseen so the roses gave me the confidence to go downstairs to see the children.”
She made her way downstairs again. This time she was praying a different prayer than that uttered only minutes previously: “Thank you, Cardinal Newman. Thank you.” During all this time she heard no sound in the house. This had unnerved her. She felt panicked, thinking that the children had gone outside. She rushed to the kitchen only to find four silent faces looking at her. As they told her later, she had asked them to remain there, and that is exactly what they had done, simply and quietly waiting for their mother to come back to them.
The children may not have registered the fact that their mother’s mood had changed from one of utter anguish and dereliction to euphoric elation. “I thought to myself in that moment, ‘Oh my goodness! My baby is okay. I’m okay. My four children are okay. We’re all okay.’ And I said, ‘Thank you, Cardinal Newman.’”
Then her cellphone rang. It was David. He had arrived in Atlanta. There was a problem with his hotel. But all he wanted to know was how his wife was doing. His wife’s reaction was as unexpected as it was welcome: “Everything is going to be fine. … Everything is going to be great! … I’ll explain later. …Take care of your hotel and call me back.”
As it happened, that afternoon Melissa had a scan prearranged at the hospital, as the doctors were understandably still worried about the health of their patient. So, later that day, her complete recovery was confirmed. The doctors told her everything was now “perfect.” There was no longer a hole in the placenta.
Seven months later, on Dec. 27, 2013, a baby girl, Gemma, was born. She weighed 8 pounds, 8 ounces. The child has had no medical problems then or since, nor has her mother.
Villalobos waited until after Gemma was born to report the healing to the promoters of Cardinal Newman’s canonization. Officials from the Archdiocese of Chicago conducted the initial inquiry. A report was then forwarded to the Vatican for another series of investigations. This process officially concluded on Feb. 13, when Pope Francis announced the miracle was accepted: Cardinal Newman would be canonized. At no stage in this process was Melissa in any doubt: “I knew it was a miracle.”
Saintly Expression of Love
Melissa loves the family life she shares with David and her now seven children. When she was ill, it was the disruption to the family’s ordinary life that she found hardest to bear. She could not cook and clean and was unable to lift anything; she could not play with her children, for fear that if they bumped her it would set off more bleeding. She feared she would never return to normal family life. That changed instantaneously — and for good: “I was able to resume my full, active life as a mom,” she said. “I was cured through Newman’s intercession so that I could continue an ordinary life, but at the same time be completely devoted to him and to God and his Church.”
That devotion will open a new chapter this October when Melissa makes her first trip to Europe. She will travel with her family to Rome to witness the Pope proclaim a saint that same 19th-century English Catholic convert priest whom she feels now she knows well.
Melissa’s devotion to Newman started with an EWTN television discussion and a prayer card dedicated to him. It was his face upon the card that drew her interest. Newman’s eyes and expression seemed to understand her mood, her preoccupations when, from time to time, she passed by the card on the mantle. The more she read about Newman’s life and witness, the more she felt he understood her. Above all, she says, she learned of how Newman was a true shepherd to all. She wondered if, spiritually, she, too, could become part of his flock, “one of his spiritual children.”
That prayer is now answered — definitively. Now, John Henry Newman is linked to Melissa Villalobos. “To be in the same sentence as Cardinal Newman is a blessing beyond words,” she said, “a display of God’s mercy and Newman’s humility.”
Melissa says that Gemma, now age 5, is not aware of what took place, not yet, although the other day she asked her mother: “What does ‘cured’ mean?”
Today, as Melissa watches her children play and as she plays with them, Newman’s spiritual child reflects: “Several times a day I think of what has happened and try to show my gratitude, just to be as loving as I can be.”
Register correspondent K.V.Turley writes from London.