By Ron Brocato, Clarion Herald Sports
As a football player at Jesuit and Southern Miss under coaches Jay Pittman and Jeff Bower, respectively, Mark Bonis was well prepared to some day lead his own team into battle from the sideline.
In his ninth year as head football coach at Brother Martin High School, Bonis has had to balance preparing his team for one weekly war after another while he and his wife Rebecca face the challenges of their infant son born with a rare abdominal-wall defect called omphalocele.
The baby’s prognosis changes almost daily.
Omphalocele is a birth defect in which an infant’s intestine or other abdominal organs are outside of the body because of a hole in the navel area.
Abdominal-wall defects develop as a baby grows inside the mother’s womb. During development, the intestines and other organs, such as the liver, bladder and stomach, develop outside the body at first and then usually return inside. But in babies with omphalocele, the intestines and other organs remain outside the abdominal wall, with a membrane covering them. The exact cause for abdominal-wall defects is not known.
Baby Marc remains at Ochsner Baptist Hospital while pediatric specialists slowly treat his changing conditions to someday prepare him for surgery, while the coach and his wife alternate long hospital visits while raising elementary school-age twin daughters in Slidell.
“Coach Bower dealt with some adversity that, too, stuck with me for a very long time,” Bonis explained. “He lost one of his daughters when I was there.
“We (his team) were part of his family. He needed us and he relied on us, and what he dealt with has helped me draw strength in the situation my family is dealing with today.
“What he experienced stayed with me,” Bonis continued. “He was a great football coach, a great Christian man I learned a lot from and hope I’m like in the sense of my Christian values.”
Passing along those values
Bonis credits his coaches, particularly his first boss as an assistant at Archbishop Shaw, Scott Bairnsfather, for instilling in him that coaching is about helping young men grow to be successful.
“We all love to win, but at the end of the day, hearing from a young man how you helped him is rewarding, and that’s really why I’m in it,” he said. “Coaches molded me into who I am today and I want to provide to every young man I coach the values I learned in the process.”
He apparently has already.
“The players have been very supportive. Not that I’m on social media a lot, but I was looking at Twitter and I noticed two entries that made me tear up and brought me to my knees.”
One was from former defensive back Roderic Teamer, a starting safety at Tulane. It read, “A lot of you don’t know that a member of my family has been fighting for his life. He’s a warrior, and tonight I am fighting for him.”
Another, a former Crusader running back now at Northwestern State, Jared West, tweeted, “Dedicating my season to my former coach and brother (Marc). Keep fighting, little man.”
Bonis pointed out that his perspective remains focused on the football team as it prepares to face Bastrop on Oct. 5 after winning three of its first five games.
“A coach coaches his team trying to keep the season about his seniors, not about his personal battles. This is my cross to carry,” Bonis said.
“It’s not about me. It’s not about my wife. It’s not about our kids. But when you have a lot of people you haven’t seen in awhile praying for you, that’s pretty powerful.”
Even football fans from the community of Petal, Mississippi, near the USM campus on which Bonis played and studied, sent best wishes and more.
“I guess the people there may have wanted information on our team (Brother Martin beat Petal, 35-14). But when they found out the situation, the Petal community helped raise money for us. The generosity they showed my wife and me was unbelievable.”
Medical costs over time may become astronomical, but Bonis said, “I’ve always believed that God is never going to put you in a situation you can’t handle.”
His staff of strength
“Rebecca is the person who has had to be the strongest. I’m getting through this because I have a rock star wife,” the coach said. “It’s been easier because I have a supporting cast of my family and her family. Rebecca went back to work and takes care of the kids and goes to the hospital.
“Things like this can make life tough on a husband and wife, but this has actually brought us closer. And our families have been with us as well.”
Infants with an omphalocele often have other birth defects, including, but not limited to genetic problems (chromosomal abnormalities), congenital diaphragmatic hernia and heart and kidney defects. These problems also affect the overall outlook for the baby’s health and survival.
Mark and Rebecca were told of the discovery doctors made during an examination after 12 weeks of pregnancy.
“After additional check-ups, we really didn’t see a very good future for Marc because of the different things that come with omphalocele.
“As we went through the check-ups, our biggest concern was for my wife’s health. The doctors thought there would be some problems there. So, we were confronted with some important decisions we had to make, “Bonis said.
“But as soon as we found out she would be OK through the birth, it was kind of full steam ahead.”
With the great unknown approaching, the Bonises had to face tough choices.
“What do you do with a child when you’re not sure what’s going to happen beyond a large omphalocele, because there are usually more things wrong with the baby? Every doctor has a different opinion of what you should or shouldn’t do.
“You have to weigh their opinions with your spiritual beliefs. It isn’t easy bringing a child into the world that’s going to have disadvantages or is going to suffer,” Bonis said. “But after praying and talking about what the Catholic Church’s belief is regarding these things, we first had to find out if Rebecca’s health was going to be OK.”
Bonis said listening to the doctors’ dissertation on options brought to mind his own birth.
“When my mom gave birth to me as a premature baby, she was told I wasn’t supposed to be able to see, if I made it at all. When you take into account the stories you hear growing up, the things the baby’s doctors were telling me hit close to home.”
Immediately after Marc’s birth, a nasogastric tube was needed to decompress the intestines and an endotracheal intubation to support respiration.
“The biggest problem is that the baby has hypoplastic (underdeveloped) lungs, which is causing pulmonary hypertension,” Bonis said. “A month ago, the doctors thought he would have heart failure because the blood was getting backed into the heart. The (condition) is still there, but the heart has fixed itself.”
Marc is on a ventilator and is being weaned off his medication. The plan is to take care of the pulmonary hypertension, and if the doctors continue to see progress, Marc will be able to come home, to delight of his sisters.
If all’s well, the surgeons will repair the omphalocele in nine months to a year, and the long and anguished battle will have been won.
Ron Brocato can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.