Any parent who tells you that they have never struggled with a child most likely is playing a little loose with the truth. Every family I have ever encountered, no matter how strong or faith committed, has had a challenge that has tested their resolve -- with most surviving the test. Then there are those who have to live through unimaginable tests of character.
Bret Baier was floating through life on a trajectory that few ever experience. His career was reaching an apex: he was on a path to be named as anchor of Fox News’ Special Report. He had married the woman of his dreams. They had prepared their new condo for their first child. Then the unthinkable happened -- something that Bret told me neither he nor his wife Amy had ever remotely faced in their mostly blessed lives.
Soon after the birth of their first child, a beautiful boy named Paul (known as Paulie), they found out that his heart was actually constructed backwards, with five major congenital defects. Remarkably, there were no signs of any problems as Amy breezed through the pregnancy while taking every precaution to ensure a healthy baby. The Baiers and their families went from elation to feeling despair, fear and helplessness in the blink of an eye, as they were told that if Paulie did not have open heart surgery, he would most certainly die. They entered a world they never knew and never envisioned they would experience in their wildest imaginations. Paulie was just one day old.
Baier decided to tell of his family’s struggle in a book called Special Heart. Despite sharing many intimate details, Baier felt compelled to share it with us. In the beginning, his wife Amy was not totally on board. Telling the story of their son’s three open heart surgeries, seven angioplasties plus unrelated stomach surgery, with all the encompassing elements of their lives, meant a major loss of privacy. As Bret drafted the book, Amy warmed to it. Bret, in a moment of clarity provided by his father-in-law, had adopted the experience as his “cause.”
At this point in our interview, I brought up the most moving moment of the book. The Baiers had become fixtures at Children’s National Medical Center in D.C. They made a decision to wait for world-renown pediatric heart surgeon Richard Jonas to return from overseas to perform the complex surgery on Paulie. During this time, they became acquainted with other families who similarly had children facing life-threatening illnesses. The morning they arrived for Paulie’s first surgery, they were surprised that the family of 9-month-old Maggie was not there, only to be told the little girl had died the night before. They were shattered.
By day’s end, Dr. Jonas had emerged from surgery and told the anxious Baiers that the operation had been successful. They had a long way to go, but the first mountain had been climbed. While with Paulie in recovery, a nurse came in and told them they had a call, which Bret took. On the other end of the phone was Maggie’s mother checking to see how Paulie had done in his surgery. I asked Bret to tell me his immediate reaction. When he heard her voice he said “I froze, I had goose bumps. This woman, who had just lost her child, had the strength and the humanity to check how we were doing. The call was life-changing and one of the reasons I had to do the book.” The moment is so powerful that just discussing it had both Bret and I choked up.
The Baiers have been on a cross-country book tour promoting the book. At each stop they have encountered people wanting to share their experiences about their similar challenges with a child. This is exactly why Bret felt he needed to do this book. An estimated one in 100 children are born with heart problems, maybe not as severe as Paulie’s, but still that child’s parents experienced the same trauma that the Baiers went through. The book tour has been one big group hug. It has allowed others to experience a cathartic moment where they know they are not alone. That includes Maggie’s father who came to one of the events.
The Baiers have a sense of being truly blessed. Where many times these type of events tear families apart, this has brought Amy and Bret closer. They have become more religiously committed as they understand the blessings they have been given. They have the daily show of Paulie (who wants to called Paul now) playing with his little brother Daniel.
One hundred percent of the proceeds from the book sales are going to a variety of non-profits supporting pediatric heart causes. The Baiers have been working hard for children’s charities to help kids who are born with similar challenges to Paul’s. The Baiers and their families have donated $2 million to create the Paul Francis Baier Comprehensive Media Room at Children’s National, which gives physicians and nurses a place to review diagnostic images and tests.
Special Heart is an act of love for all the children, their parents, and especially for Maggie.