A miracle for Christmas

Every Sunday evening at St. Mary of Sorrows Church in Fairfax you can find Mary Lenaburg in the kitchen making dinner for the parish youth ministry program. Instead of feeding the hungry teens pizza every week, Mary cooks healthy, delicious meals.

But she's not alone. Her daughter, Courtney, comes every week to help her mom in the kitchen. She doesn't cut vegetables, or put out plates. She doesn't help clean the dishes at the end of the night. But she is present to everyone who passes through the kitchen every Sunday.

The 15-year-old girl cannot see. She cannot stand, walk or even talk. Courtney suffers from an unknown seizure disorder that has baffled some of the country's best doctors. They had predicted that she would not live past her third birthday. Despite the grim outlook from physicians, Courtney continues to breathe and smile.

Courtney is a miracle. Every breath she takes is a gift from God. But this Christmas, Courtney is asking for another miracle - one that will allow her family to keep up with her rising medical expenses.

Good beginning

Mary and Jerry were married in 1988. Like most young couples, they dreamed of starting a family together. Their first child, Jonathan, is now a member of the St. Mary youth ministry program. And then there's Courtney.

"My sister is a unique person," said Jonathan. "There's no one on earth like her."

Standing with her hand in his, Jonathan said that if anyone ever tried to hurt her, they would have to deal with him, proving himself a loving older brother.

"And she's a true younger sister," he said, adding that Courtney sometimes enjoys whacking him on the head.

When she was born, Courtney seemed like a normal, healthy baby. Just after her baptism, when she was only five weeks old, she had her first seizure.

Start of the struggle

At seven months, Courtney still suffered from seizures, but doctors thought they had an answer. They suggested surgery that they hoped would help. Wanting to see their daughter healthy, the Lenaburgs decided to give it a try.

"The results of that were tragic," Mary said. Courtney was allergic to the medicine they used during the surgery, and instead of getting better, she went toxic. The operation that was supposed to help her cost Courtney her sight and left her brain damaged.

"I wept and promised my daughter that I would never leave her, and I would never give up on her," Mary said.

Courtney spent her third birthday in the hospital, fighting for every breath.

"We will fight with her until she takes her last breath," Mary said. Courtney pulled through and continued to grow beyond the doctors' expectations.

When Courtney turned seven years old, she made a trip with her parents to Lourdes, France. When the Lenaburgs arrived in Lourdes, one of the first things they did was pray a rosary together. At about the same time, back in Fairfax, Fathers Brian Bashista, Terry Specht, and Donald Greenhalgh and the people of St. Mary of Sorrows Parish were also praying the rosary for Courtney.


On their second day in France, the family went to be washed in the water found by St. Bernadette.

Courtney, on a stretcher, would enter the water first. Helpers from Poland, Portugal and Russia asked where Courtney's illness was. Following Mary's instructions and using a statue of the Blessed Mother, they blessed Courtney's feet, legs, arms, eyes and brain. When they came up to Courtney's arms, in one swift motion, Courtney stole the statue of the Blessed Mother and placed the statue over her heart.

The statue stayed in that place as Courtney was lowered into the freezing cold water. Mary had never seen her daughter so still before.

Next it was Mary's turn to be dunked. She stepped into the cold water and was asked what her prayer was. In that one moment, the only word she was able to say was, "Acceptance."

They later found out that same word had entered Jerry's mind as he stepped into the waters as well.

"That word was not ours," said Mary. "It was our daughter saying, 'I accept this and carry it for the honor and glory of God.'"

But the miracles continued. After dining with an American priest, Mary found herself sitting around a table with then Charlotte, N.C., Bishop William G. Curlin. She ended up telling the bishop Courtney's story, and the bishop asked if Courtney was ready to receive her first Communion.

Courtney has trouble opening her mouth and swallowing food, so her mother never dreamed that it would be possible for her daughter to receive Jesus in the Eucharist. But Bishop Curlin was determined, and Mary and Jerry certainly weren't going to argue.

Two days later, dressed in a beautiful white dress from Paris, Courtney received her first Communion. Courtney stood on her own two feet for one of the few times in her life. When the bishop said, "Body of Christ," she responded with an "Ahhh." She opened her mouth, received the host, and closed her mouth - all on her own.

New challenges

But now, the family is searching for another miracle. Courtney has a vagal nerve stimulator (VNS) in her body that works as a pacemaker for her brain. It helps to control the seizures and stop them before they start. Recently, the VNS has stopped working for Courtney, and her seizures have started again - as violent and serious as ever.

They are happening so frequently that Mary recently resigned from her job with Fairfax County so she could be with Courtney all the time. That job was bringing in much needed funds to keep the family functioning.

Over the past 15 years of caring for Courtney, the family has accrued $142,000 in debt. And that number continues to rise as Courtney's seizures continue. Now, if they are not able to pay off the debt, they will be forced to sell their home to avoid declaring bankruptcy.

In light of this new crisis, their friends at St. Mary Parish have again united to help the family with a project called "Courtney's Campaign."

Christmas miracles

And the miracles keep pouring in. In its first month, Courtney's Campaign raised enough money to pay off the Lenaburg's second mortgage of $67,000, and $13,000 of the remaining medical costs. Accountants agree that this means they will most likely keep their house.

"We have been surprised, overwhelmed, awed and completely humbled by the love and kindness pouring over our family," Jerry and Mary write on the campaign's Web site.

But they still need to raise $62,000 to cover the cost of medical bills. If they are blessed enough to go beyond that total, the family plans to start a medical trust for Courtney that will cover future medical bills.

"When you open up your life, God's generosity cannot be outdone," Mary said.

Pometto is a former staff writer for the Catholic Herald.

To donate

Checks payable to "Jerry and Mary Lenaburg"

Memo line: "Courtney's Campaign"

Cardinal Bank

University Mall Branch

c/o Brad Lieby

10695 Braddock Rd.

Fairfax, Va. 22032


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2007