Ask former Cardinals pitcher Andy Benes if he believes in spiritual connections linking people all over the world, and he answers with an enthusiastic ‘yes.’
“Christians are all part of the same spiritual family and we are called to put our faith into action,” says Benes. “God made us aware of a family in need for a reason.”
Half a continent away, a young Ukranian family was facing the unthinkable. On the last day of a vacation to Florida to visit family and friends last December, the Konovalenko family was settling down to a celebratory dinner when, unnoticed by anyone, 3-year-old Emiliya wandered into the backyard and fell into a swimming pool. She was underwater for more than 10 minutes before she was found.
“I was crying so loud and I couldn’t find a pulse,” says Emiliya’s mother Valeriia. “Her heart stopped three times on the way to the hospital and I knew then that crying wouldn’t help; CPR wouldn’t help; only prayer. That’s it.”
Her husband, Borys, who had remained in Ukraine to work, rushed to find a flight to the United States. “I had a big night of prayer. I was fighting with God and trying to understand what happened,” he says. “When I got to the hospital, I saw my daughter in a little bed with lots of medical equipment all around her. It was a really hard, really dark time in my life.”
They prayed for miracles. And on January 6, the first miracle occurred. “I prayed that my daughter would wake up out of her coma on our Christmas, which is celebrated January 6 and 7 in Ukraine,” says Valeriia. “That morning, she opened her eyes.”
In St. Louis, a second miracle was under way. In a local Starbucks, Andy Benes leads several Bible studies each week and has come to know the employees. Over time, he and his wife became friends with the Ukrainian barista, Marina Antipova, and her sister Anna.
“Anna knew Valeriia from when they both worked at a Ukrainian orphanage,” explains Benes. “When war broke out in Ukraine, Valeriia’s father, a Christian pastor, was killed. Her sister, Stella, was sent to live with Anna here in St. Louis.”
Marina told Andy and Jennifer Benes that Stella wanted to enroll in Westminster Christian Academy. Because the Benes’ had enrolled four of their six children at the same school, they agreed to help. A lasting friendship started.
In January, Andy Benes got a desperate call from Anna. “She told me about Stella’s sister and asked if we knew any doctors here that they could contact. The family didn’t have any insurance and wasn’t going to be able to find the care Emiliya needed back in Ukraine.”
Andy Benes didn’t think twice. He picked up the phone and called the Foundation. That’s when the third miracle started to unfold.
Benes, now a Fox Sports Midwest commentator, has co-hosted an awardwinning and wildly popular show across the Midwest called “Cardinals Kids TV” for the past 13 years. He also has come to the medical center to visit patients and is an enthusiastic supporter of Homers for Health each year.
“I know that Cardinal Glennon is a faith-based hospital,” says Benes. “The first thing I said was, ‘There is this tragedy, a little girl is badly hurt, and insurance won’t be part of the equation, but could they help?’ Staff at the Foundation said they would look into it and they called the Florida hospital asking for information about the case.”
Borys Konovalenko was sitting beside his daughter in a hospital room on a Saturday morning when, out of the blue, his phone rang. “They said they had reviewed our case and it was approved. I didn’t understand. I said, we can’t pay; that was impossible. But they said, ‘Don’t worry about this. Just connect us with the hospital team there and we will help.’ I started crying when I heard that. Our prayers were being answered.”
The Foundation, along with Andy and Jennifer Benes, gathered more miracles for the family — transportation from Florida to St. Louis and full medical care at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital. After contacting administrators at partner rehabilitation hospital, Ranken Jordan, arrangements also were made for free comprehensive rehabilitative care for Emiliya there as well.
Jennifer Benes says, “We have children, and we couldn’t imagine what it would be like for us if that were one of our children going through that, especially in a foreign country,” she says. “I think it’s our privilege, Ranken Jordan’s privilege, and Cardinal Glennon’s privilege to do what we can to provide for this family.”
Emiliya arrived in St. Louis in late January. Her care is now overseen by a multidisciplinary team including:
- SSM Health Cardinal Glennon pediatrician Lauren Draper, M.D.
- SSM Health Cardinal Glennon pediatric neurologists
- Ranken Jordan rehabilitation specialists (physiatrists)
SSM Health Cardinal Glennon sees anywhere from 12 to 30 kids each year that have fallen into water and drowned. Medical recovery depends upon a wide variety of factors, including length of time underwater. “Anytime a brain is deprived of oxygen for a long period of time, it can cause severe damage,” admits Dr. Draper. “Emiliya did very well postresuscitation and didn’t have a lot of damage to her kidneys or liver, but she does have a hypoxic brain injury and we all need to work together to ensure that we maximize her recovery efforts.”
Emiliya also came to SSM Health Cardinal Glennon with paroxysmal sympathetic hyperactivity or neuro-storming, a condition with a series of symptoms including a rapid heartbeat, increased blood pressure and muscle stiffness. “It occurs after traumatic brain injury when the brain is on uncontrolled hyper-drive,” says Dr. Draper. “We were able to relax her brain with medication and allow for some recovery.”
The Benes family stays in regular contact with the family and continues to reach out with both support and prayers. “We know we cannot help every unfortunate situation that occurs, but this was an opportunity to help a family that could not help themselves and were running out of options,” says Benes. “We have adopted two kids from Russia and have spent quite a bit of time in Siberia. My wife actually had an appendectomy while in Siberia to adopt our son, Brock. It’s tough to be in a hospital for any reason, let alone a foreign country. We wanted to show them the love of Jesus, as we have been truly blessed in so many ways.”
Borys’ eyes fill with tears as he talks about all of the people who have helped along the way. “You know, my wife got on the internet, she kept asking, ‘Who are these people who are helping?’ And then she found out Mr. Andy Benes used to be a famous baseball pitcher — and who are we? Just citizens of Ukraine.”
In response, Andy Benes says it’s about putting faith into action. “This really is about one Christian family dealing with another Christian family,” he says simply. “The connections all came about because of God.”
Foreheads touching during an intimate moment, Valeriia looks deep into her daughter’s eyes and smiles. “It is such a blessing to be here and have Emiliya’s rehabilitation here,” she says. “We don’t know God’s plan for us, but he sent angels, I really think he did.”