Pope Francis blesses child of alumni couple

A young boy meets Pope Francis through Make-A-Wish America
Tristan Searfoss, the son of Brian ’90 and Liisa (Duhigg) Searfoss ’90, meets Pope Francis at the Vatican in November 2016.
Tristan Searfoss, the son of Brian ’90 and Liisa (Duhigg) Searfoss ’90, meets Pope Francis at the Vatican in November 2016.

Imagine you are born with a life-threatening medical condition that requires you to undergo several surgeries from the time you are an infant. After 14 years of fighting for your life, the Make-A-Wish Foundation of America pledges to send you anywhere you would like to go to meet anyone you would like to meet. Given such an opportunity, what would you do? For Tristan Searfoss, the son of Brian ’90 and Liisa (Duhigg) Searfoss ’90, the answer was simple: Go to Rome to meet Pope Francis.

As you might imagine, a request of that nature is far from typical, but, according to Liisa, everything about Tristan is far from typical.

Before he was born, Tristan was diagnosed with hypoplastic right heart syndrome and tricuspid atresia, a congenital heart condition a 2012 study cited by the Center for Disease Control estimates occurs in about 1 in 10,000 babies born in the United States. The condition is considered critical and can require several surgical procedures to treat.

As fate would have it, the Searfosses had recently moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, home of the University of Michigan Hospitals, the one place Liisa said a family friend who practices medicine described as a “miracle” that could possibly save Tristan’s life. When he was born, however, his doctors discovered four additional, unforeseen birth defects which prompted his first surgical procedure a mere twelve hours into his life.

Tristan’s first few months were filled with many complications, including heart failure and an infection. He was moved to a special, isolated room along with five other babies in similar situations.

“It was tortuous, watching these babies try to fight,” Liisa said. “Out of the five families who shared the room with us, Tristan was the only one to go home.”

As Tristan grew older, Liisa said she began to notice things about him that struck her as unusual.

“He was always looking up and waving in the same direction,” she said. “Around (the age of) two, Tristan couldn’t really say much, but he would always be waving in the skylights and saying, ‘Hello up there. I see you.'  I was sure he meant angels.”

Around the age of six, near the time of his final heart procedure, Liisa said Tristan began asking questions about God, saying things that baffled her and her husband, such as, “I understand that God is in my heart and I keep him there, but what am I going to do if the devil tries to get in?” Although Brian and Liisa, both originally from Northeastern Pennsylvania, had moved the family to South Carolina, they sought spiritual advice from the Rev. Cassian Yuhaus, C.P., at St. Ann’s Basilica and Monastery in West Scranton and began making yearly pilgrimages to St. Ann’s to receive his blessing.

At about the same time, the family learned that Tristan had qualified for a wish through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. When Liisa asked him what he wanted, however, she was shocked by his answer.

“He said, ‘I know what I want. I want to go to Jesus,’” she said. “I told him, ‘You know you can’t go to Jesus, because if you go to Jesus, you can’t come back.’ He said, ‘I know, and it’s OK. I’m ready to go there and see him, and I’ll just wait for you.’”

As the years passed, Liisa said Tristan’s faith continued to grow. When he turned 14, Liisa said she approached him again about the Make-A-Wish offer. Tristan was initially troubled by it, thinking of it as a sort of death sentence, but Liisa said she explained that it was a “life wish,” a reward for fighting as hard as he had his whole life. According to Liisa, Tristan only wanted one thing: to meet Pope Francis. Curiously, this coincided with the pope’s 2015 trip to Philadelphia, Pa., which Liisa assumed would please Tristan.

“We thought that was perfect, and then he said, ‘OK – do I get to see him? Does he get to bless me? Do we have lunch?’” she said. “That’s when we just smiled realizing he hadn't any idea of the enormity of this wish.”

After Tristan learned that none of those things would happen on the trip, he reconsidered his request and came up with a new wish: he wanted to go to Rome, receive a blessing from the pope and “see where he sleeps.” The representatives of Make-A-Wish said they could fly Liisa, Brian, Tristan and his two brothers to Rome for four days over 2016’s Thanksgiving holiday and arrange for the pope to bless Tristan, but that was the most they could hope for. Then, another amazing coincidence occurred: a few weeks before they were scheduled to depart for Rome, Pope Francis opened the Apostolic Palace at Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence and vacation home of the papacy since the 17th century, to the public, giving Tristan the chance to see where the pope sleeps in time for his trip.

“He decided to open his sleeping quarters (to the public),” Liisa said. “This was the most incredible piece of news, to learn of this announcement!”

On the morning of the blessing, the family traveled to the Vatican’s Paul VI Audience Hall, and Tristan and Liisa sat in the front row waiting to meet the pope. Tristan described the moment in a “thank you” letter he wrote to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

“As he got closer and closer to me, I could feel my hands start to sweat more and more,” Tristan wrote. “I could feel my heart start to race until it was finally my turn to meet him. I extended my hand out and stood up. He read the title of the (Make-A-Wish) packet that said, ‘Wish to meet the pope – Tristan.’ Then, he blessed me and my holy water and said a prayer in Latin to me.

“For that moment, I was experiencing my own miracle.”

Liisa said Tristan has always acted as a spiritual beacon to the people around him.

“We saw such a spiritual side (of him) coming out from the age of two,” she said. “As parents, we understand the importance of teaching faith to our children, but it was actually Tristan who opened our eyes and he brought us along with him on his spiritual journey of love and faith in God.”

On Saturday, March 4, Tristan will turn 16, and Liisa said the blessing he received from the pope will continue to strengthen his faith and resolve.

“He is 100 percent sure nothing (bad) will happen to him,” she said. “Because Tristan has been so spiritual all his life, he has such strong faith that he is going to be fine.”

For more information on the Make-A-Wish Foundation, visit wish.org.  

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