Inside Stricken Mother, a Race Between Life and Death

Jason Torres's wife, Susan Torres, is brain-dead, but he and her parents hope that her body can be sustained long enough for her fetus to be delivered and survive.
Jason Torres's wife, Susan Torres, is brain-dead, but he and her parents hope that her body can be sustained long enough for her fetus to be delivered and survive. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 17, 2005

Since his wife's brain stopped functioning weeks ago, since she was hooked to a ventilator and her cancer began spreading down to her neck, to her back and to the lymph nodes under her arms, Jason Torres said he's noticed relatively little physical change except one: Her belly keeps growing.

"She's becoming more noticeably pregnant," he said with quiet awe yesterday, sitting near the marbled cafeteria at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington.

It is the place where he has spent the better part of his days lately in some emotional purgatory: grieving the loss of his 26-year-old wife, Susan Torres, who he believes is dead, "barring divine intervention," and yet hoping still to save the 5-month-old fetus she is carrying by keeping her body alive, at least for five more weeks.

"It's a race against time whether the child will reach viability . . . before the cancer spreads," said Torres, 26, of Arlington. "We have a small hope that maybe. Maybe."

They were hoping for a girl.

For all anyone knew, Susan Torres was in perfect health when she found out in February that she was pregnant, and the couple greeted the news of a second child with the usual mixture of terror and joy. Susan was found to have melanoma when she was 17 -- a malformed freckle on her arm was removed -- but doctors then had given her the all clear.

In late April, though, Torres said his wife began to complain of feeling mildly ill with nausea and headaches that gradually worsened. Torres saw her obstetrician and perhaps two other doctors, her husband said, all of whom said she seemed fine. With the symptoms persisting, Torres took his wife to the emergency room, where doctors said she was simply dehydrated.

So they went home. It was early Saturday by then, May 7, and Susan Torres went to sleep. Later on, she told her husband that she wanted something greasy to eat. He made steak and cheese subs, and propped her up in bed for dinner. She apologized for being so much trouble.

"I said, 'Ah, that's all right,' " Jason Torres recalled. "And that was the end of the conversation."

Moments later, his wife stopped breathing. Torres called 911 and performed CPR until the ambulance came. At the hospital, doctors did a CAT scan and told him that his wife had no brain function, that she had a cancerous growth at the back of her head and that it had metastasized and bled, causing pressure on her brain.

"That's when they said we wouldn't normally proceed at this moment," Torres said, but because she's young and because she's pregnant, the doctors said, "we'll try."

The surgery that night relieved some of the pressure; her body seemed to stabilize. Three days later, doctors approached Jason Torres with a choice. "In their dry way of speaking, they said the event of the 7th was a fatal event" for Susan, he said, "and that we could try to continue for 10 weeks and save the child, or just stop now."

Torres conferred with Susan's parents, who had flown in from Texas, and they agreed to keep Susan on a ventilator and provide nutrition and hydration in the hope that the fetus might make it to 25 weeks -- about mid-July -- at which point the baby would have a chance of surviving outside the womb.

According to a report several years ago by the University of Connecticut Health Center, there have been 11 similar cases reported in the United States since the late 1970s. Most were successful, the report said, with pregnancies prolonged in brain-dead women 10 weeks on average. Torres said he realizes that it's a long shot, but his wife, a microbiologist with the National Institutes of Health, was a strong-willed and competitive soul, and he is certain that she would want it this way.

And so Susan Torres lies in a hospital bed in Arlington, both her belly, and her cancer it seems, growing a little bit every day.

Although doctors at the hospital declined to comment on her condition, Jason Torres said they have told him that the cancer has not reached his wife's vital organs yet. But they told him that her particular sort of cancer, melanoma, has the ability to penetrate the placenta and attack the child. So if Susan makes it until July, there will be another question: whether to deliver the baby prematurely, with all the risks that entails, or try to keep going longer and risk the baby getting cancer.

If the case brings to mind that of Terri Schiavo, Torres said yesterday, there are really no similarities, because he and Susan's family are in agreement over her treatment and because they have, as best as they can, accepted that if it weren't for the baby, she would be gone.

"I don't want to accept it," Jason Torres said, referring to his wife's death, "but, yeah, I don't think it would be unethical to stop [the ventilator] now. But given the chance to save the life of the child, we've got to give it a try."

For now, Torres is on leave from his job in publishing, his days spent shuffling insurance claim forms and shuttling between the hospital and home, caring for his wife and for their 2-year-old son, Peter, who, when he asks, is told that his mom is just asleep at the hospital. Jason Torres sleeps there, too, most nights, at his wife's side, realizing, he said, that there is only a limited time to sit with her and hold her hand.

He speaks with some detachment about the baby but allows himself to smile when he says that on the sonogram, the child seemed feisty. He tries to remain realistic, yet sometimes allows himself to consider names: His wife liked Cecilia Ann; he is leaning toward Susan or Michelle, his wife's middle name.

There will be a huge bill, he knows, because health insurance does not cover the full cost of her treatment. For about 110 to 130 days in the hospital, Torres figures his cost will be $300,000 to $400,000, which is why he and his family decided to approach the news media with what would otherwise have remained private.

The Torreses are Catholic, and there was an article several weeks ago in the Arlington Catholic Herald, followed by one in Wednesday's Washington Times and USA Today, and by yesterday afternoon, a cluster of microphones and television cameras was waiting outside the hospital as the story of Susan Torres began to spread across cable news.

"I'm realistic about the problems," Jason Torres said, "that the planets have to align for the child to survive. We have a small hope that maybe we can pull something out of the ashes of this situation."

Staff writer David Brown contributed to this report.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company