From left, Jake Finkbonner in kindergarten in 2005, Jake one day after he contracted flesh-eating bacteria, and Jake on his sixth birthday just eight days after the accident.
Jake Finkbonner is bouncing about, teasing his sisters and playing basketball again. That is a miracle – not only to him and his family but also to the Pope Benedict XVI.
The 11-year-old Ferndale, Wash., boy’s stunning recovery from the flesh-eating bacteria that chewed up his face and nearly killed him in 2006 has been officially deemed by the Vatican as a miracle attributable to Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th-century American Indian woman who converted to Catholicism at a young age.
The pope on Monday signed a decree authenticating the miracle, clearing the way for Tekakwitha to be canonized as America’s first Roman Catholic indigenous saint.
“There is no doubt in me or my husband’s mind that a miracle definitely took place,” Jake’s mother, Elsa Finkbonner, told msnbc.com on Tuesday. “There were far too many things that could have and should have gone wrong with his illness. The doctors went through every avenue they could to save his life and he survived. It’s a miracle that all of the other things that could have gone wrong, didn’t.”
Jake's face-off with death started at age 5 on Feb. 11, 2006, when he fell and bumped his mouth against the base of a portable basketball hoop while playing basketball for the Boys & Girls Club. Lurking on the surface of that base was Strep A bacteria, which causes a tissue-destroying disease known as necrotizing fasciitis, a very rare condition commonly known as flesh-eating bacteria.
Within a couple of days Jake found himself in Children’s Hospital in Seattle, fighting for his life as the bacteria gnawed away incessantly at his head, neck and chest.
“They had taken him apart. There was nothing to see of Jake’s face except his nose and chin. Everything else on his head was completely covered in bandages,” Elsa Finkbonner recalled.
Jake Finkbonner two months later with skin grafts.
Doctors told Elsa and her husband, Don Finkbonner, who works at a BP refinery in Ferndale, that the prognosis was grim.
“They opened up Jake and said, ‘If you are praying people, you need to pray. You need to get your family here because we are trying to save his life,’” Elsa said.
A priest and family friend, Fr. Tim Sauer, was called in to administer what he thought would be last rites.
“When I was called to the hospital it was basically to help the family prepare to say goodbye and let go. His probability of survival at that point was very slender,” Sauer told mnsbc.com.
The Finkbonners are devout Catholics and Don Finkbonner is also a Lummi Indian. At the urging of Sauer, they began praying for the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha to intercede on Jake’s behalf. Friends, neighbors, community members and strangers joined them.
After numerous surgeries to remove his damaged flesh, Jake suddenly and unexpectedly took a turn for the better on the ninth day of his hospitalization, Sauer recalls. That was the same day that a relic of Tekakwitha was brought to the hospital from the national office of the Tekakwitha Conference, a Catholic Native American religious organization, in Great Falls, Mont.
Jake Finkbonner with some of his buddies in 2007. From left, Rick, Jason, Jake and Ben.
The relic was placed on a pillow next to Jake’s head. “On that day his vital signs began to make an unaccountable improvement,” Sauer says.
Vatican investigators would later interview hospital officials about Jake’s case, and the doctors said “they did not have any clear medical explanation for why his condition turned around on that day,” Sauer says.
About nine weeks after he was admitted to Children’s, Jake was cleared to go home.
After Jake’s recovery, Sauer sent a letter to the Seattle archbishop detailing the possible miracle.
The Vatican in Rome eventually sent a panel of investigators – including a doctor and a church lawyer – to Ferndale and Seattle to examine the claims. Community members were asked if they indeed did pray for the intercession of Tekakwitha. Doctors who attended to Jake were also interviewed.
The findings were forwarded to the Congregation for Causes of Saints, a committee of cardinals and bishops in Rome who review all the testimony that leads to the canonization of saints and presents the case to the pope.
On Monday, the Vatican announced that Pope Benedict XVI formally recognized the miracle attributed to Tekakwitha – the last step on her way to canonization.
Tekakwitha, known as “the Lily of the Mohawks,” was born in 1656 in upstate New York to a Mohawk chief and an Algonquin mother. A smallpox epidemic killed both her parents and left her with partial blindness and a disfigured face. She converted to Catholicism after meeting several priests. Ostracized from her tribal community, Tekakwitha devoted herself to a life of deep prayer. She died in 1680 at age 24. According to the Catholic Church, witnesses said that within minutes of her death, the scars from smallpox completely vanished and her once-disfigured face suddenly shone with radiant beauty.
Pope John Paul II beatified Tekakwitha in 1980 – the first Native American to be declared “blessed” – a step below sainthood.
Usually, proof of two miracles must be attributed to someone who becomes a saint -- one before beatification, one after. But Pope John Paul II waived the first miracle requirement in order to beatify Tekakwitha in 1980, according to the Albany Times Union.
It’s not known yet when and where Tekakwitha’s canonization ceremony will be held. Canonizations are usually done in Rome but there have been cases where it has taken place elsewhere, Sauer said.
Whatever the case, Jake’s family will be invited and will attend. “Wherever it will be, we’ll be on our way,” Elsa Finkbonner says.
Sauer notes that it’s not mere coincidence the news comes on the week before Christmas. “It’s a statement of faith that God continues to work miracles in people’s lives today and do it through simple, ordinary people like Kateri Tekakwitha and Jake Finkbonner.”
Back on the court
As for Jake, “he’s doing fantastic,” his mother says. “He’s an excellent student, a typical, happy 11-year-old-boy who plays video games and punches his sister in the head and makes her cry.” He’s also playing basketball again on an AAU league.
Jake Finkbonner in 2011
“He said, ‘I’m not afraid of that infection. I beat it the first time and I can beat it again,’” Elsa said.
As for the nonbelievers, Elsa is quick to explain that attributing Jake’s miracle survival to a future saint is in no way a discredit to the doctors who treated him.
“We know Jake would not be here if those doctors were not so fabulous,” she says.
But she also notes that the doctors themselves told the Vatican interviewers they don’t know how to account for the boy’s turn of fortune.
“They stated they did everything humanly possible and that the death rate for this disease is very high. They had also made comments as to they don’t know why he survived. They, too, have stated that, yeah, it is a miracle that he has survived.”
For more on Jake's story, visit his website, jakefinkbonner.com.