This is a story about four friends who decided to co-chair a fancy Washington benefit. But it’s really a story about being a parent, about being scared to death when something’s wrong with your kid, and how your worldview is never quite the same.
Yousef and Abeer Al Otaiba and Bret and Amy Baier have teamed up on Friday’s gala for Washington’s Children’s National Medical Center. Al Otaiba is the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United States, Baier is the anchor of Fox News Channel’s “Special Report,” and the glamorous young couples are regulars at D.C. charity events. But this one is something much, much different. So different that they have raised $8 million for the gala, one of the most successful hauls for a Washington event.
In the fall of 2012, when Abeer was five months pregnant with the couple’s second child, she went in for a ultrasound to find out the baby’s sex. It was a girl. But then the doctor said words that no parent ever wants to hear: “Sit down. We need to talk.”
The doctor saw something troubling on the baby’s lungs, a rare condition later diagnosed as congenital cystic adenomatoid malformation. It can be harmless — or deadly — but it almost always requires surgery.
The doctor sent them to an ultrasound specialist, who took one look and told them that the best pediatric radiologist was at Children’s. The couple jumped in the car and raced up without an appointment. “After your second doctor tells you that you need another ultrasound, we were in full-on panic mode,” the ambassador says.
This is where coincidence or fate or luck — call it whatever you want — comes in. In 2009, the philanthropist Joe Robert told his friend the ambassador that his dream to donate $100 million to the hospital was not going to happen because the global economic downturn had slashed his net worth. Robert’s lament, made in passing, resonated because the UAE had been sending children needing treatment to the hospital for years. The crown prince responded that the country might be able to do something — then authorized $150 million to establish the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation. Long before he knew he would need it, Al Otaiba had a direct line to the hospital’s chief executive, Kurt Newman.
For the four months after the frightening ultrasounds, the Al Otaibas went in for weekly monitoring. At their side through the ordeal: Bret and Amy Baier.
The Baiers have been public with their family struggle. After an uneventful pregnancy, their son was born in 2007 with five congenital heart defects. Baby Paul had his first open-heart surgery when he was 12 days old and has had two more since. The latest operation was in September, and he will need more as he grows. In June, Bret’s book, “Special Heart: A Journey of Faith, Hope, Courage and Love,” will be released; proceeds will go to pediatric cardiology care and research at the hospital.
The two couples met at a hospital event honoring Robert, who died in 2011. Amy and Abeer became best friends. “When I found out about my daughter, she was the first to know,” Abeer says. “I went to her and said, ‘How do you do it? I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.’ I just fell apart.”
Amy’s advice? Have faith and don’t let the stress and fear ruin her health. “I assured her that I would be there every step of the way,” she says.
Samia Al Otaiba was born in January 2013, and four months later, she was back at the hospital for surgery to remove the lung mass. Newman was in the operating room for the three-hour procedure while the two couples waited outside the door. “There are very few friends who understand what it’s like when they take your baby away,” Amy says.
The operation was a success, and the risk to the Al Otaibas’ daughter eliminated. But it was an emotional, life-changing experience, the ambassador says: “You learn that there are certain things you just can’t control. There’s a lesson in humility about what you can and cannot do, but it also creates bonds like this that you can’t replace.”
On the last day Samia was in the hospital, Abeer turned to Amy and said, “Guess what? We’re co-chairing the ball this year.” The gala at the Ritz-Carlton will have 900 guests, food prepared by Wolfgang Puck and Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, a surprise A-list entertainer and dancing — raising $8 million for the hospital’s research, technology and patient care. The party sold out two months ago, before invitations had been mailed.
All good — but not the best part. The best part is watching their kids living normal lives.
Paul, now 6, is “growing like a weed,” Bret says with a proud grin. “He’s the tallest in his class. You would never know.” The Baiers’ younger son, Daniel, is best buddies with the Al Otaibas’ son, Omar. And Samia, 14 months, is a typical toddler driving her big brother crazy, her dad says: “She’s a perfectly healthy baby.”