Put to the Test: Pullano Family Holds Tightly to Faith and Family

| February 18, 2016

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By Christy Perry

The shrieks and giggles of just-home-from-school children echo through the halls of the Pullano home. We can hear their delightful noise through closed doors, as Karen and Bill Pullano, parents of nine children, chat with me in their cozy parlor. Hanging over the fireplace mantel is a large portrait of the entire family, taken in May 2008. I ask them what was going on in their lives at the time the photo was taken.

“Mikey”

Their 4-year old son Michael had just spent Easter weekend at home with his parents and siblings after enduring months of chemotherapy aimed at shrinking a tumor buried deep inside his brain stem. In the portrait Michael is seated, his young face swollen, his hair gone.

“He doesn’t look like himself there at all,” said Karen. The day after Easter, “Mikey,” their first-born son, was headed back to Upstate University Hospital for five days of intense chemotherapy.

The worried parents knew it would be a rough week in the hospital for him, but no one—not they or the doctors or anyone else—expected what happened that Friday.

“He stopped breathing,” said Bill.

“He’d been awake and on the way back from [a medical procedure]. I thought, something’s not right,” Karen explained. “I don’t even know what happened, he just started having an event and trauma; he was Code Blue.”

Karen and Bill Pullano at home with their family.

Karen and Bill Pullano at home
with their family.

Doctors in the intensive care unit began life-saving treatment for Mikey, but they did not give Karen and Bill much hope for their son’s survival. The Pullano family gathered in his hospital room. Doctors suggested he be taken off a ventilator, and Crouse Hospital Chaplain Rev. Robert Hyde was called in to perform the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.

One by one, his brother and sisters arrived at his hospital room and stood around their breathing but unresponsive little brother. Anna, oldest of the nine, walked in. Karen continued the story. “Anna had a certain connection with Michael. She just always did. And she walked into the room and I said, ‘Mikey, Anna’s here. Do you want to say hi to Anna?’ And his little head nodded. And the doctors didn’t believe it.”

“It was after Fr. Hyde and all of us had stood around Mikey and prayed,” Bill said.” The little boy then woke up and opened his eyes. By Sunday morning, he was still alert and breathing on his own.

The family was all at the hospital again that morning and went to Mass together in the hospital chapel. “I had no idea what day it was,” Karen said. “And of course it was Divine Mercy Sunday. And it was such a special gift.”

“We still refer to it as ‘Mikey’s Miracle,’” Bill added.

The Pullanos knew that their son still had a rough road ahead. He had been treated at Boston Children’s Hospital months before for a rare type of brain tumor called a PNET, which stands for Primitive Neuroectodermal Tumor. They were told there was no known effective treatment for PNETs. Nonetheless, his parents enrolled him in the HeadStart Cancer Treatment Program, an intensive chemotherapy plan, in Boston. Back in Syracuse, though, his tumor grew larger.

At that point in time, Karen was eight months pregnant. While Mikey was receiving chemo at Upstate University Hospital, Karen gave birth to daughter Laura. “I was back and forth in the tunnel between the two hospitals,” Bill said. While still a patient himself, a delighted Mikey got to meet his new sister. He called her “Baby Wawa,” his parents recalled with smiles.

In the following months, the family went to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, courtesy of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Although it was difficult for him to do much because of his illness, Mikey was excited to see his cartoon favorite, Mickey Mouse.

At summer’s end though—August 19, 2008—4-year-old Michael Pullano died. Fr. Hyde had since taken a job as parish priest at St. Margaret’s Church in Mattydale. His first day on the job was spent preaching Michael’s funeral Mass.

Hearts broken, his parents took on the difficult tasks of grieving their son’s loss while caring for their other children, whose grief was very real and raw as well. In retelling the story, Karen and Bill respond to each other’s words in a tight harmony one often hears from closely knit couples.

“It’s a really difficult thing to understand; why does God allow suffering?” Karen acknowledged.

Bill picked up her thought. “Now that we look back at it, God allows suffering because it’s through the suffering that He can show his love.”

The Pullanos’ faith kept them functioning during that time and, they say, it still does. They established a scholarship fund for students at St. Margaret’s School— The Mikey Fund— the school all of their children except Mikey have attended.

“It really makes a difference for families, whether they can afford the tuition and continue this Catholic education,” said St. Margaret’s Principal Amanda Hopkins. “It truly is a blessing for the community.”

Bill and Karen say that in turn, the community has richly blessed them. The outpouring of support they received helped them through some very dark days. “After Mike died, I remember saying, you know, the only thing I can think of that’s worse than losing a child is to lose two children,” said Bill.

Anna

Her parents say Anna was hit especially hard by her little brother’s passing. She wondered why their prayers for his healing weren’t answered.

“The hardest part, even for believers, is sometimes He heals and sometimes He doesn’t,” Bill said. “And that’s where you’ve got to fall back on your faith and accept whether He heals or not.”

St. Margaret’s School Secretary Sue Lowe watched Anna grow up. “As I remember, she was a shy, very quiet little thing who definitely blossomed,” Lowe recalled. “She was an angelic little girl.”

Anna was in her senior year at Westhill High School on the first day of March 2013. On a Friday night, she asked her dad if she could take the car out to visit some friends. He said yes, as he had many times before.

“She didn’t have a curfew, but we were starting to tell her to be reasonable, don’t come home too late,” Karen said. “I know she wanted more trust, and so I was trying not to text her every minute.”

Karen was again pregnant and by midnight, she was too tired to wait up for Anna any longer. Although she was nervous, instead of texting her daughter that she was going to bed, Karen prayed. “I just prayed ‘Lord, you know, I entrust her to you, and Mary, I entrust her to you,’” she said.

Karen doesn’t know if she was having a dream or a vision as she lay in bed, but she remembers seeing the Blessed Mother walk right up to her, and Anna was with her.

Bill picked up the phone at about 2 a.m., Saturday morning, March 2. Anna had been in an auto accident.

According to the detective who investigated the accident, a sudden, late-night snowstorm slicked roads and made visibility difficult for drivers in that section of town. Anna was wearing her seat belt and had her foot on the brake, police theorized, to try to avoid sliding into an intersection. She was traveling at 13 miles an hour. A Centro bus driver did not see her car when it slid into the bus’s path. The bus hit the driver’s side door. Police believe she died instantly.

“What a shock,” Karen said. Bill added, “What a shock that was that, out of nowhere, all of a sudden, she was gone.”

Faced with burying their second child, Karen and Bill say they once again turned to God and slowly, step by step, began walking in faith, believing that Anna and Michael were reunited in Heaven.

“It’s all about your faith,” Bill said. “And it’s about your hope in eternal life, and you believe you’ll be reunited with your loved ones, long to be reunited with the Lord.”

Did they ever ask God “Why us?”

Karen says she doesn’t believe there will be an answer to that in this life. Bill admits he did ask God ‘Why?’ after both children died. But he also was convinced that he had to accept that God was in control of all parts of life.

“I always say, every day, Your will be done. And even though it may not be Your will for a young child to die, I know You’re going to use this to your benefit. So be it,” Karen said.

A few years after Mikey’s passing, Karen channeled her mourning into writing and helping others who grieve. What began as a hospital-provided blog on Caringbridges.com became Godversations, a blog and Facebook page that Karen maintains to this day.

Principal Hopkins says the Pullanos’ gracious and kind outreach to others is a hallmark of the way they live and raise their children. “Not only have they had significant loss in their past, but the way that they move forward and continue to keep others inspired around them about faith and being strong is truly a gift,” she said.

Bill and Karen are quick to mention the beautiful gifts they received in the aftermath of their children’s deaths. Because of the research they did into Mikey’s cancer treatment, they were able to direct Karen’s mother, diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer in September 2007, to a holistic cancer treatment center in Texas. That treatment added years to her life.

The fact that they welcomed new babies into their family just as both Mikey and Anna left was also a major healing factor for them all. Besides Anna, who would now be 20, and Mikey, who would now be 11, the Pullanos are blessed with Nichole, 19; Danielle, 15; Karrina, 14; Andrew, 10; Laura, 7; Melissa, 6; and Olivia, 2.

“How beautiful, in both instances, we’re going through this and we get a new life,” said Bill.

Editor’s Note: A post-interview phone call from Karen confirmed yet another new life is on the way to the Pullanos. They are, as of this writing, expecting their 10th child. The baby’s due date? June 14, 2016—the day that would have been Mikey’s birthday.

For more information on: The Mikey Fund
A scholarship program at St. Margaret’s School
Contact Principal Amanda Hopkins at 315-455-5791

Christy Perry is a freelance writer in Syracuse, New York. She recently published her first historical novel, Panther Mountain: Caroline’s Story.

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Category: Catholic Identity

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