By Carl Peters
Christina McNasby has endured numerous surgeries — 33 of them so far. Disproving the bleak medical prognosis she was given at birth, she learned how to talk after years of speech therapy, and recently graduated from high school. But now the disorder is attacking her kidneys and liver.
Many people are praying for her because only a miracle will save her from an early death — and perhaps because she seems to embody for them the aspiration of all Christians: the triumph of religious joy over earthly hardships.
“She is one of the most religious individuals you could ever encounter,” said her pastor, Father Raymond P. Gormley of Incarnation Parish, Mantua.
When Christina had to have her head shaved for a recent surgery, about a dozen neighbors showed their support by going bald themselves. When she went on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, last month, she took with her 1,000 petitions from her fellow parishioners.
“My first impression of Christina was of a holy young woman who has a depth of understanding beyond her years,” said Teddy Sitter, a member of the Sovereign Order of Malta who accompanied Christina at Lourdes. “She is a holy person.”
Christiana has cranioectodermal dysplasia, also known as Sensenbrenner Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that can cause bone, facial and organ abnormalities. Only several dozen cases are documented and of those, many of the patients died in infancy. Few have lived to young adulthood.
Now 19, Christina was 1.8 pounds at birth, with a multitude of physical challenges. After years of therapy, she began talking when she was in fourth grade. She suffers from cluster headaches — considered more painful than migraines — for which she can take nothing stronger than aspirin. She can stand and walk normally, but only for limited periods of time because of chronic pain.
Yet she has thrived academically and, from all appearances, emotionally and spiritually.
“I like school,” she said, quietly acknowledging her academic success. She is currently enrolled in a post-graduation program for youngsters 18-21 in the public school district, and she is interested in learning more about anatomy and physiology. She follows professional football, ice hockey and baseball, and she has been an altar server for nine years.
Christina lives with her grandparents, Rose and John Daly. She does not have vivid memories of her mother, Tina, who died in 2005.
“I almost lost my mind when my daughter passed away,” Rose said. She remembers being alone in church, facing a crucifix, with the thought, “If you want me to get through this, then you’re going to have to get down off that cross and help me.”
She has become Christina’s medical advocate, eager to talk about her progress and difficulties, and willing to challenge medical authorities when necessary. Despite the years of worries and prayers, and her fear of what the future could hold, Rose is emphatic that Christina is “a blessing.” Her husband John has a lighthearted touch, showing his affection by constantly teasing Christina, to her obvious enjoyment.
The three pray the rosary together every evening.
Throughout her life, Christina has been surrounded by strong support from diocesan clergy, and several priests have donated blood when she needed it. The late Father Kenneth Johnston, her former pastor at Incarnation, took a special interest in her, as has Father Gormley, the current parish pastor. The pro-life activities of her mother, Tina, led to relationships with Father Timothy Byerley, pastor of Saint Peter Parish, Merchantville, Father Peter Idler, pastor of All Saints, Millville, and others.
“It doesn’t bother me,” Christina says of her constant medical visits and daily physical challenges. “I’ve lived all my life with different surgeries.” She shrugs off a question about the likelihood of an early death.
Bishop Dennis Sullivan got to know Christina because she would serve Mass when he visited Incarnation, and he contacted the Order of Malta, a worldwide lay religious order, about taking her to Lourdes.
Teddy Sitter, one of several members of the Order of Malta who was with Christina at Lourdes, has made several trips to the Marian shrine. Each time, she said, she experiences a “Lourdes moment,” and this time she found it watching Christina when she had been handed a bottle of Lourdes water.
“She took it so reverently and simply,” Sitter said. “In her own private holy moment, she made the sign of the cross, simply and faithfully. It was purposeful and reverent. My eyes got teary, and I thought ‘This is the Lord’s moment.’”
“I was honored to be there,” she added.
Sitter, who lives in Connecticut, and three other members of the Order of Malta — one from New York and two from Pennsylvania — made the trip to Mantua on June 17 to visit with Christina and pray with her.
Christina describes her pilgrimage to Lourdes simply; it was “prayerful,” she said. But she didn’t pray for her health at the site of so many physical healings that have been deemed miraculous. “I don’t like to pray for myself,” she said.
“She always prays for other people, even people she doesn’t know,” Rose said, who voices what Christina may be too shy or modest to say herself.
Based on what Rose says, and the impression she has made on others, Christina has a rare faith. They suggest that her certainty of God, of Mary’s love, of an expectation of heaven is almost as tangible as the wetness of the water she blessed herself with at Lourdes.
“She never complains. She has a great positive outlook,” Father Gormley said. “Her faith in the Lord and our Blessed Mother is beyond comparison.”
Rose was unable to accompany Christina and her grandfather to Lourdes. When they returned she asked Christina if she felt closer to Jesus because of the pilgrimage.
“She answered, ‘No,’” Rose recalled her saying. “That would be impossible.”