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St. Bernadette parishioner keeps faith alive after a ruptured brain aneurysm

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“Father Michael J. McGivney, pray for us.”

“Saint John Paul II, pray for us.”

“Our Lady of the Snows, pray for us.”

When Ken Balbuena puts his two daughters to bed each night, these three people are the intercessors his family prays to. They know the reason for praying to the priest who founded the Knights of Columbus, the former pope turned saint and Mary, Mother of God.

The 39-year-old parishioner of St. Bernadette Church in Springfield believes these intercessors had a hand in protecting him after suffering a ruptured brain aneurysm and his first brain surgery two years ago, as well as during a second surgery last year to remove another aneurysm that had not burst.

An aneurysm is a weak, bulging area in an artery. When it ruptures, blood spills into the space between the skull and the brain. This can cause a serious type of stroke or other disabilities that injure the brain. Balbuena had a “berry” or saccular aneurysm, which is the most common type — though they don’t usually happen to someone his age, as most develop after the age of 40.

Dec. 13, 2017

The day was like any other. He was working at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine, where he is the director of pilgrimage and visitor services. During his drive home after work, he felt a shooting pain move from the left to the right side of his head, his neck stiffen up, his ears clog up and then nausea set in. Most people pass out when this happens, though he didn’t. Instead, he called his wife, Kristy, and told her what was happening. They assumed it was nothing more serious than a migraine, so he headed home.

He said, “I was needed on ‘daddy duty’ that night to watch the girls while Kristy went to a Girl Scout troop leader meeting.”

Enter his first intercessor — Father Michael McGivney.

As a Fourth Degree Knight of Columbus, Balbuena feels a strong connection to the founder of the organization, created for young men such as himself. He prayed to Father McGivney the whole way home.

“Help me get home safely, and I promise to help get your name out there,” was his plea.

 Though he should have probably gone to the hospital when he got home, he went to bed and asked his 7-year-old daughter, Anna, to take care of her younger sister while he tried to sleep.

Pain was always present, and sleep was elusive that night.

The diagnosis

The next day, he called an advice line and had a virtual doctor’s appointment, which lasted three minutes before the physician told him to go directly to the hospital and “do not drive.”

The first CT scan confirmed an aneurysm and he was sent to Virginia Hospital Center for a second scan. He was immediately checked in, and emergency brain surgery was scheduled for the next day — now two days after the initial rupture.

According to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation, an estimated 6 million people in the United States have an unruptured brain aneurysm — or 1 in 50 people. A rupture causes almost 500,000 deaths worldwide each year, and 40 percent of people die within two days of a brain aneurysm rupture. Either they die on the spot or before reaching a hospital. For Balbuena, he was one of the lucky ones to survive the initial rupture and last long enough to have surgery.

Knights are encouraged to carry their rosary and pray it often and Balbuena’s is always by his side. During his surgery — which should have lasted four hours but was only two — he was allowed to keep the rosary by his legs. In that short two-hour window, it snowed unexpectedly. 

The second and third intercessors

During this stressful time in the hospital, his family continued to pray to more than Father McGivney.

“I knew I was praying to Mary,” Balbuena said. “But I didn’t know I was praying to Our Lady of the Snows.”

Balbuena returned home just before Christmas, and when he returned to work in time for the March for Life in January, he told a nun at the shrine about his ordeal. It turns out that Our Lady of the Snows is the patron saint of her order, the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy. 

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Working at the John Paul II Shrine is one connection to the saint, as well as Ken’s half-birthday (which holds a significant meaning to him and Kristy) that falls on the saint’s feast day — another coincidence? And, one of the miracles attributed to the saint was curing a Costa Rican woman of an inoperable brain aneurysm.

This is just one of several overlapping connections that Balbuena started to note.

A connection the saint shares with Mary is an image of the “protector of Rome” that Pope John Paul II presented as a symbol of World Youth Day in 2003 to accompany the WYD Cross. This icon of “Salus Populi Romani” or Our Lady of the Snows traveled to Washington in 2018 and was entrusted to the shrine where Balbuena works. He also recently attended a conference for work held at a Marian Shrine called the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows.

It was also at a Knights’-sponsored pancake breakfast at St. Bernadette that he discovered the altar is the same one that Pope John Paul II used when he came to the U.S. in 1979.

“These people and events individually don’t mean anything, until you start making the connections between them and specific events,” Balbuena said. “They all seem to be coming together in a beautifully painted picture.”

During his time in the hospital, keeping his faith alive and maintaining a positive attitude helped him through. Two years later, Balbuena believes he is about 98 percent back to where he was before the rupture.

Though he doesn’t wish this ordeal on anyone, his own experience “taught him to appreciate his family more and become a better father,” he said.

He also firmly believes that “the family who prays together stays together.”


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019