Through their son’s unexpected health crisis, Matt Hammitt, lead singer of the award-winning band Sanctus Real, and his wife, Sarah, rediscovered the meaning of childlike faith.
by Lindsay Williams
“I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced a time in your life when a single moment changes everything and takes you down a new path. Something is wrong with your baby’s heart. It doesn’t look good. In that moment, my life changed. After I heard those words, a flood of thoughts and questions rushed through my head, and they haven’t stopped yet.”
Wife and mother Sarah Hammitt wrote these words in her first blog post on June 11, 2010, a few short weeks after her first ultrasound for her third baby. Unbeknownst to Sarah, the blog bowensheart.com would become a vibrant community over the next few years. It was a cathartic source of strength and comfort for Sarah and her husband, Matt, and a place of encouragement for a host of people who’ll never even meet the Hammitts.
Bowen Matthew Hammitt, whose apropos name means “small, victorious one,” arrived September 9, 2010. A few days later, he had his first open-heart surgery. Bowen, Matt and Sarah’s third child and first son, was diagnosed with a serious and rare congenital heart defect called Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome (HLHS), which caused the left side of his heart to be severely underdeveloped. During the months leading to their son’s birth, the Hammitts immersed themselves in research about HLHS and began to map a strategy with their doctors to ensure they did everything possible to save their unborn child.
Following Bowen’s initial surgery and encouraged by the doctors and nurses to leave for some post-surgery rest, Matt and Sarah headed to the nearby Ronald McDonald House. The phone woke them around 3 a.m. Bowen had coded. The Hammitts rushed to the hospital to find an army of doctors and nurses surrounding their son, performing compressions on his tiny chest, which was still open from the surgery.
“Matt and I walked into a scene that was like something from a movie. I was so, so sad. It was scary and awful,” Sarah recalls. “For me, it was hard watching Bowen dying and thinking, Lord, do I get to keep him or not?”
“The hardest thing was not knowing whether we’d bring him home,” Matt adds. “And then the fear of whether he’d be OK when we got him home. We knew that if he were in the hospital for a long time, we’d eventually ask ourselves, Are we going to be able to take care of him? Are we going to be able to meet his needs? Would we be able to face being in the hospital for months, seeing him hooked up to machines, and seeing him in critical condition? How would we react when told one day they’re going to unplug him and hand him to us and say, ‘OK, here you go. Take him home’?”
Though Bowen suffered some seizures and strokes, he miraculously survived. The Hammitts got to take him home right before Thanksgiving 2010, their own hearts nearly bursting with gratitude.
Three months later, they returned to the hospital for Bowen’s second heart procedure.
Peace That Surpasses Understanding
Bowen spent more than three months in the ICU after he was born. And it was there, in the halls of C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich., that Matt and Sarah found comfort in the midst of their trial. Sarah shares, “At the most horrific, dismal point in my life, I was surprised how bright and beautiful God’s hope and peace were. I’d never understood it before because I’ve never gone through a tragedy like this. I learned how bright God’s light is in the darkest times of our lives.”
Matt continues, “It was hard, but I think we really did feel the peace that surpasses all understanding that the Bible talks about (Philippians 4:7). That became real. We built a sense of trust in God more than ever because the only way we were going to make it through was simple reliance on God … It was strange because on one hand, it caused me to dig deeper into the Word of God, caused me to really think about my theology; but then at the same time, there was this element of simple, childlike faith as well.”
For the Hammitts, focusing on how they could best encourage other parents was like a life preserver in the midst of their raging storm. As Matt and Sarah lived their faith in front of other families with children in critical care, people began to take notice. “Some of the most rewarding things were the interactions we had with others who were struggling,” Matt says. “You’re around other people at the hospital who have no peace whatsoever, and you feel that difference; they feel that difference, and it leaves a lot of opportunities to be a support to them. And then you find the purpose in all of it, and that sustains you. You become the hands and feet of Jesus, and your purpose becomes bigger than just being there for your own child. Experiencing the power of God’s using us in other people’s lives was a special event for us.”
Sarah says she often thinks about the other mothers she met in the hospital. Unlike Sarah, some of them never took their babies home. “God is good no matter what, and I’ve received the miracle, but there are other people who haven’t been so fortunate,” she says. “I speak from this side of things, and then my heart just aches for the ones [who experienced the other side]. While Bowen was having his miracle, they were having their babies taken away from them, taken home to Jesus. That thought is never far from my mind. I pray for those moms [because] their hearts probably hurt every day.”
Emmy understood enough to tell people her brother had a “broken heart.”
A Brother’s Broken Heart
While the Hammitts were at the hospital with Bowen, their two older daughters, Emmy, 4, and Claire, 2, at the time, were back home in Toledo, Ohio, with their grandparents. Being separated for an extended period of time was difficult on the girls and their parents. Matt says they would try to make the hospital experience positive and fun for the girls when they would come to visit, often taking them to the hospital playground. Matt says although their daughters didn’t fully comprehend all that was happening, Emmy understood enough to tell people her brother had a “broken heart.”
“They had this whole spectrum of emotions they could never define or understand, so they’d have little breakdowns here and there,” Matt remembers. “They were good moments for us to hold them, talk to them, and listen to them. I think it definitely grew our relationship and our bond with them.”
“I think about what God’s plan was in shaping the other children through our experience with Bowen,” Sarah muses. “I think it’s easy to say, ‘Oh, poor other kids,’ but if you’re careful, and you nurture the other kids, it really shapes them as people, too. It gives them empathy and compassion to learn that it’s not all about them.”
Lessons Learned the Hard Way
Now that they’ve walked this difficult road as a family, Matt and Sarah have words of advice for those struggling with a child diagnosed with severe health problems.
“Accept the help that’s offered to you,” Sarah suggests. “Don’t feel guilty. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and be specific. Let people serve you because it’s a blessing to them, too.”
She also contends that reminding herself that their situation was only temporary, whatever turn it took, proved comforting. “This too shall pass,” she says. “It’s only a matter of time. Everything passes. It’s not always the outcome we want, but even in death, there’s healing … I think just knowing each day was new helped me get through every horrible day. I remember thinking, Tomorrow’s another day, and it will bring about change, and I will eventually get out of this hospital. I will eventually get back to some sort of normal life. I know that things change in time, so I cling to God’s promises.”
Matt notes that the best gift friends and family can give others who are dealing with a similar situation is simply their presence. “The one thing I found is that when you’re in the middle of something like that, nothing that anyone else says makes it better,” he offers. “Be there, sit, listen, or bring meals. Just show up, whether it’s for five minutes or an hour. That speaks so much.”
A Hope and a Future
This month, Bowen turns 3. Although he’s small for his age and his skin tone is ashen due to poor circulation, he’s on limited medications and is as alert, curious, and energetic as any other 3-year-old. Matt and Sarah are already talking with Bowen’s doctors about his third and final heart surgery, which will likely take place in the summer of 2014. In the meantime, they’re taking it one day at a time. They even welcomed a new addition to their family in November 2012, making Bowen a big brother. Though HLHS is genetic, baby Lewis was born healthy with no heart defects of any kind. Currently, at 19 pounds, he’s only eight pounds lighter than his older brother.
Bowen might be small, but he’s progressing well. Although Matt and Sarah are hopeful, they’re aware of the reality of children living with HLHS. Thirty percent of children with this type of congenital heart defect pass away before they’re 5. Then, the older they get, the more at risk they are of heart failure. “Right now, they say about 20 years is all you’re going to get, and then at some point, you’re going to need a transplant, a new heart,” Sarah says. “All of it’s palliative, which means you’re prolonging life; you’re not fixing the problem. So I deal with that knowledge. I think about it a lot every day.”
Sarah admits she’s learning to release each of her children and their futures to God, especially Bowen. “The biggest thing is surrendering the fact that I won’t be able to figure out how to fix Bowen,” she confesses. “I won’t know. I’ll never know when God is going to take him.”
As they look to the future, the Hammitts’ greatest wish for Bowen is the same desire they possess for Emmy, Claire, and Lewis. “My primary hope for all my kids is that they love the Lord because I know if they love the Lord, He’ll put that desire in their hearts to follow His plan,” Matt says. “Of all the complex questions and journeys my kids will have, I know the Lord will work them out if their hearts are looking to Him.”
“We hope our children love Jesus. That’s the bottom line,” Sarah affirms, but speaking from a mother’s heart, her dreams specifically for Bowen are simple and pure. “Physically for Bowen, I want him to live life. I want him to grow up and be with us for as long as possible. I hope he gets to have kids and experience life. That’s my hope for him.”
To follow Bowen’s progress and the Hammitts’ story, visit bowensheart.com. •
Lindsay Williams is a former editor of CCM Magazine and a former marketing manager at Thomas Nelson. She currently freelances full-time from her home in Nashville, Tenn. Lindsay writes for a variety of publications and websites, including ParentLife, Collegiate, Parenting Teens, Christian Retailing, crosswalk.com, UPTV.com, and thesoundopinion.com, among others.
This article originally appeared in the September, 2013 issue of Home Life. Subscribe