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After the tumor: Jeannie Gaffigan on life, love, faith…and learning to ‘light that candle’

Melissa Lugo
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It was a trip to the pediatrician with her five kids that led Jeannie Gaffigan to discover she had an apple-sized tumor wrapped around her brain stem. Instead of completely falling apart, she immediately turned to God, saying, “I’m going to need Your help. You’re going to have to guide me through this because I have no idea what I’m doing…and I still have a lot of work to do for You.”

From that point on, Jeannie moved forward with faith and trust. And it’s gotten her to a hopeful place.

Jeannie Gaffigan, as many people know, is a Christopher Award-winning writer/producer, wife of comedian Jim Gaffigan, and mother to their five children: Marre, Jack, Katie, Michael, and Patrick. As she told me during a recent “Christopher Closeup” interview, she had been enduring “massive headaches and dizzy spells,” balance issues, and even hearing loss during the early months of 2017. She wrote the symptoms off as possibly being seasonal allergies because “they were so disconnected from each other.”

When the pediatrician learned that Jeannie couldn’t hear in one ear, she examined her, but couldn’t find anything obvious, so she sent her to an Ear Nose and Throat specialist, who also found nothing wrong. That led to an MRI, which revealed the massive tumor.

On the positive side, the tumor was benign. A cancerous one that size would have killed Jeannie already. But it still needed to come out, otherwise she would be left paralyzed. That was when Jeannie prayed to God for guidance and, as she said, “I was led into the right situation.”

It was April 2017 – Holy Week, to be exact – so Jeannie called her cousin on Long Island “who’s an absolute prayer warrior” to start a prayer chain.

Meanwhile, all the neurosurgeons Jeannie contacted couldn’t even squeeze her in for an appointment until May. She then called her best friend from childhood, now a neurologist, for advice. After overnighting copies of her brain scans to him, he called and said, “You need to get to the operating room as soon as you can. Find the top neurosurgery department in Manhattan and go to the ER at that hospital.”

Jeannie and Jim headed to Mount Sinai Hospital, but called the ENT to let him know their plan. The ENT said he had a contact at Sinai and could get her a quicker appointment. As it happened, prominent neurosurgeon Dr. Joshua Bederson was able to see Jeannie immediately.

She said, “On Good Friday, I went through a series of MRIs where they mapped out my entire brain and did a virtual surgery on how to deal with the tumor and the nerves surrounding it. Then they basically said, ‘You have Easter Saturday and Easter Sunday with your family. On Monday, you’re going to surgery.”

The nine-hour surgery was successful, but recovery came with its own difficulties. Jeannie’s throat was left paralyzed temporarily, and she needed an oxygen tank to breathe and a feeding tube in her stomach. “I also aspirated my own saliva after the surgery because of my swallowing and breathing functions not being there, so I got double lung strep pneumonia which threatened my life,” she explained.

Thankfully, Jeannie has come a long way since then. She said, “The healing that I’ve experienced in the past four months has been nothing short of a miracle. I’ve had some of the most powerful spiritual people in the world praying for me. And I’ve even had people who I thought to be atheists praying for me. I’ve seen the good side of humanity in a time where I feel that our environment in our country is sort of torn apart. I’ve seen people from every belief system and every political leaning come out and be good human beings, and I have a renewed sense of the power of intercessory prayer, and a renewed sense of my purpose on earth and for my children. I’ve had a lot of spiritual encounters with God during those really dark days in the hospital. There’s no doubt in my mind that the hand of God was with me every step of the way.”

One of the ways that God’s presence was made visible to Jeannie was through her family. She calls Jim “a rock” through this experience: “He dropped everything and really honored our marriage vows.”

In addition, Jeannie praises her eldest daughter Marre for acting so selflessly at an age when most kids would prefer to be doing their own thing: “She gave up her social time to be there for me and the other kids…With the little ones, we have this joke about how every single night, they come into the bedroom and say, ‘I’m scared, I want to sleep in your bed.’ [Instead], the kids went into [Marre’s] room, and she held them and cuddled them and told them everything was going to be okay and that mommy was going to come home soon. She really grew as a person during this time instead of running away from it. I’m really proud of her.”

Jeannie saw God’s presence in other ways as well. For one thing, she says she was humbled to receive a phone call from Cardinal Dolan while he was in Lourdes, France. The prelate said he was praying for her, which meant a lot because Jeannie has “a special healing devotion to the miracle at Lourdes to St. Bernadette.”

Also, on the day that Jeannie was scheduled to be discharged from the hospital, the doctors told her she couldn’t leave unless a registered nurse accompanied her home and set up all the equipment she would need there. Their fears arose because Jeannie had a coughing fit the day before which caused her tracheotomy tube to come out of her throat.

It just so happened that was the day a close friend of Jeannie’s, Sister Mary Doolittle from the Sisters of Life, arrived in town from Virginia and came to the hospital to visit Jeannie. Sister Mary is a registered nurse, so she agreed to handle everything that was of concern to the doctors.

“I remember [Jim and Sister Mary] wheeling me outside in the wheelchair and seeing this beautiful day. Mount Sinai hospital is right across from Central Park, and I saw all these children playing, and I felt like God was opening up this whole new chapter in my life.”

As Jeannie moves forward into that new chapter, the words inscribed on her Christopher Award – “Better to light one candle than to curse the darkness” – have taken on new meaning. She concludes: “I’ve always known that to whom much is given much will be expected – and if I’m given any gifts by God, I need to use them. I’ve always known that in my work, but now there’s an urgency to do things that may be smaller, like lighting one candle, [rather] than these ambitious, huge goals of doing major shows in order to change the world. Right now, I’m seeing so clearly that my children, my creativity, and everything is right in front of me…It’s important to see what God is placing right in front of us and what choices that He’s giving us. Everyone should do this because it shouldn’t take a brain tumor. We all need healing. Look for those opportunities to light those candles, even if it’s not something incredibly ambitious. We all want to light a thousand candles, but there’s that one candle that’s right in front of you that God is presenting for you. Open up your eyes and look at it and light it.”

(To listen to my full interview with Jeannie Gaffigan, click on the podcast link):

After graduating from St. John’s University in New York with degrees in Communications and English, Tony Rossi found a job at the Catholic media organization, The Christophers, that allowed him to indulge his interest in religion, media, and pop culture. He served as The Christophers’ TV producer for 11 years, and is currently the organization’s Director of Communications. The job entails hosting and producing the radio show/podcast “Christopher Closeup,” writing and editing the syndicated “Light One Candle” column, producing and scriptwriting the annual Christopher Awards ceremony, and more.
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