By Mason Nesbitt
Curtis and Deann Lewis were not overly concerned.
On April 2, 2021, they drove their 5-year-old daughter Natalie to the hospital for an outpatient procedure to fix an ongoing heart condition.
Curtis and Deann, both graduates of The Master’s University, planned to return home with Natalie that evening. Soon, she’d be back in a ballet outfit and playing mom to baby brother Colton.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Curtis — TMU’s longtime women’s soccer coach — couldn’t enter the facility with Deann and Natalie. So, he asked Natalie what she wanted him to bring her the next time they met. “An orange,” she said.
Natalie was drowning in kids scrubs as she waited beside her mom. Deann wishes now she’d known they wouldn’t talk again for almost a year.
The four-hour procedure started at 8 a.m. Deann expected to receive a call with an update around 10. At 10:36 a.m., her phone rang.
“Where are you?” someone from the hospital asked.
“We’re outside. What’s going on?”
“There were complications in your daughter’s procedure.”
“Is she alive?”
“Right now, she’s alive,” he said.
The Lewis family’s inspiring and tumultuous journey began that day.
Natalie nearly died on the operating table. Her heart stopped for 15 minutes, resulting in a severe brain injury. One day in the hospital turned into 107.
In some ways, life was even harder after she returned home. But as months turned into a year, Natalie began to take miraculous strides toward recovery.
Through it all, Curtis and Deann have faithfully represented Christ and sacrificially served their daughter. They’ve received support from the body of Christ, and they’ve used Facebook to share their experience with thousands of people across the world.
Ultimately, they hope to inspire others to trust in the goodness of a loving Heavenly Father who remains sovereign even in the darkest moments of life.
Natalie, the second of Curtis and Deann’s four children, was born with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a condition in which an extra electrical pathway in the heart causes arrhythmia.
On Good Friday 2021, she underwent a procedure to disrupt the extra connection. The operation — called a catheter ablation — is minimally invasive; doctors access the heart by guiding a thin, flexible tube through femoral arteries.
Around the two-hour mark, however, Natalie’s heart was perforated, sending her into cardiac arrest. After 15 minutes of CPR and an emergency surgery, her heart started beating again. But the lack of oxygen had caused severe damage to her brain. “The daughter you knew is gone,” a doctor later told Deann.
There was more.
No one was sure Natalie could breathe on her own once doctors removed the tube running down the back of her throat. And if she couldn’t, Curtis and Deann made the excruciating decision to let her go.
The waiting was almost unbearable. “We were praying, ‘God, give us the next breath. Give us the next breath,’” Deann says.
When doctors extubated Natalie, she didn’t immediately respond. “You’re almost leaning in, like, ‘Ahh, come on,’” Curtis says.
Then, a breath.
This was the first victory in a long, uphill battle.
An early opponent was the muscle tension caused by Natalie’s brain injury. During episodes of what’s called “dystonia,” the tiny girl’s back would arch at an extreme angle as if she was being electrocuted.
One morning, Deann texted friends from church: “I’m praying God would just take her. She’s writhing in pain in front of me, and there’s nothing I can do.”
But God was working.
He had already placed one of Curtis’ former players as a nurse in the hospital. And with COVID restrictions, she was the only familiar face who could visit initially. She told Curtis and Deann that their interactions with Natalie could make a real difference in her recovery. That comment changed everything.
From the beginning, Curtis and Deann refused to blame anyone.
After the procedure, Curtis hugged the doctor. Deann said she believed God had a plan.
“Today is Good Friday,” she said. “Natalie has trusted Jesus as her Lord and Savior. We know where she’s going, and if this leads to your salvation, it’s worth it.”
This laid the foundation for a remarkable testimony.
Members of the hospital’s staff watched as Curtis and Deann grieved without growing bitter. They couldn’t understand why the couple didn’t vent the hurt they obviously felt inside. Instead of demanding more be done for Natalie, they wanted to know how the nurses were doing. Each Friday, a friend of Curtis and Deann’s brought snacks for their caregivers. Items from Porto’s Bakery were always a favorite.
One day, a nurse told Deann and Curtis that their response of love and hope had opened the door to gospel conversations with coworkers she’d never been able to reach before. “Keep doing what you’re doing,” she said.
On another occasion, Curtis led a nurse to faith in Christ.
To be sure, there were plenty of tears and times when it felt as if they’d never leave the hospital. But Curtis and Deann relied on the Lord moment by moment, entrusting their feelings to Him, believing that He loved their little girl more than they did.
Staff members at the hospital showed Curtis, Deann and Natalie exceptional love and care during their extended stay. Even now, the family remains in touch with several of the nurses.
Support also came from the body of Christ.
For the first month, no one could visit. But members of Curtis and Deann’s church stood in the parking lot across the street from their window and prayed. They posted signs on a nearby fence. One read, “We love Natalie. Jesus loves you more.”
After the family returned to their home in Palmdale, California, relatives and friends dropped off meals, cleaned the house and watched the kids. Women from Faith Community Church — where Curtis serves as missions pastor — came daily to help Deann with home-schooling so Natalie could receive one-on-one attention.
Jared Kira, a TMU graduate who runs a custom apparel business, printed 1,000 “Pray for Natalie” T-shirts, donating all the proceeds to help with Natalie’s care.
An even larger community began to form online.
The Facebook page “Pray for Natalie” was born out of necessity. Curtis and Deann couldn’t meet the demand for updates and prayer requests themselves, and the platform provided a central spot for information.
Over time, the page morphed into a ministry. Curtis and Deann shared heartfelt posts about Natalie’s story and what the situation was teaching them about God.
They rarely glossed over challenges.
After Natalie’s release from the hospital, the next five months were brutal. Her weight dropped to 29 pounds. She felt and looked like “a bag of bones,” Deann says. Natalie vomited in bed and in the car. She gagged on saliva, and bowel movements were hard to come by. Curtis and Deann felt they couldn’t leave her alone, even for a second.
“You were living on anxiety and adrenaline,” Deann says, “waiting for the next moment when you had to jump into action.”
At times, caring for Natalie and their other three children was overwhelming — even for Deann, who before Natalie’s injury worked as a police dispatcher. Natalie needed attention. Haven, a toddler, wanted a snack. Baby Colton climbed the stairs. Titus, the oldest, hid away from it all. Curtis juggled the roles of father, husband, coach and pastor.
Like never before, Deann and Curtis relied on God’s grace. “God will carry us,” Deann said. “God will sustain us.”
Before the injury, Deann would tuck Natalie in every night and blow her a kiss from the doorway. Natalie returned the affection by smacking her lips. Now there was silence.
One night, after Natalie fell asleep, Deann laid beside her and cried. She told Natalie that she and Curtis were sorry for choosing to do the procedure — sorry all of this had happened. Over and over, Deann whispered: “Be strong and courageous, for the Lord your God will be with you.”
Natalie needed courage.
Like her mom (a hall-of-fame soccer player at TMU), Natalie never lacked toughness or determination. But as she weaned off medication, she became more aware of overwhelming challenges. She couldn’t communicate. She couldn’t walk. And she didn’t always want to practice either skill. But in those moments, Deann would remind her, “I love you too much to leave you like this.”
In a “Pray for Natalie” Facebook post, Curtis connected Deann’s words to Philippians 1:6, “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (LSB).
“Oh, how God loves us too much to leave us, His children, like we are,” Curtis wrote. “Dear children, listen to your Father and keep pushing on. Each baby step, over time, really does make a difference.”
The response to Curtis and Deann’s transparency and Natalie’s need has been remarkable. The Facebook group has grown to more than 9,000 followers. Most posts receive hundreds of likes and dozens of comments. Curtis and Deann read each note of encouragement. They estimate that someone in 72 countries and every state in the U.S. is praying for Natalie.
“I would never wish this on anybody,” Curtis says, “but I do wish the average Christian could experience the body of Christ like we have.”
God has also provided financial support.
A GoFundMe page has raised more than $85,000. A church in the Midwest raised another $70,000 for a new family van. A yard sale brought in $14,000.
This has allowed Curtis and Deann to take a multifaceted, holistic approach to Natalie’s recovery.
They’ve weaned Natalie off medication, given her supplements, and employed a variety of treatments — like mirror, vibration, and primitive reflex therapies — to stimulate neurological and motor function.
They’ve also attempted to leverage the body’s own natural healing processes through platelet-rich plasma injections and stem cell therapy (using Natalie’s own stem cells).
Natalie also spends two hours daily inside a soft-shell hyperbaric chamber. The inflatable chamber ultimately delivers highly concentrated oxygen to the parts of her body still in need of healing.
Around 9 a.m. each day, a team of speech, occupational and physical therapists (including TMU alumni Leticia Pena Fernandez, Bobbie Gardner (Roberts), and Hannah Fuller, among others) begin arriving at the Lewis home. The last caregiver departs about 4 p.m. “I love everyone on our team,” Deann says.
As far as progress, Curtis and Deann say December 2021 was a turning point.
Since then, Natalie has put on weight. She’s gained dexterity in her hands, allowing her to color mostly within the lines.
She’s progressed to wearing normal underwear and using the toilet. She smiles and laughs and plays with her siblings. She walks with assistance. At times, she wobbles short distances alone. Baby steps.
In February, Natalie began to say words like “help,” “okay,” “dada,” “book” and “bye.” One day when Haven completed a summersault, Natalie said, “Bravo.”
She gets excited when she sees improvement. These days, she’s speaking in full sentences.
“God is just doing these unbelievable things,” Curtis says.
So, what comes next?
Curtis and Deann’s prayer is that on April 2, 2023, the two-year anniversary of the procedure, Natalie will be able to tell her own story.
Until then, they’ll continue to share their journey in hopes of inspiring others to trust the Lord.
They want to continue to serve Christ, no matter how exhausting or painful that may be. They’re willing to trust their weary hearts to Him.
“I’ve never longed for Christ’s return as much as I have in the last nine months. Come, Lord Jesus, come,” Deann wrote in January. “Until then, sustain us, hold us, carry us, heal us.”
Cover Photo by Mark Finster.
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