A Mother's Vigil

by Michael Van Denend '78
Winter 2010

On Nov. 17, 2009, Calvin first-year student Brenna Hannan was out and about with other women from her residence hall in the wee morning hours.

They wanted to see the Leonid meteor shower display, where as many as 30 meteors can be seen per hour in the darkened skies. So the women took to the Gainey Athletic Fields to catch the amazing astronomical action.

At about 4 a.m., on the walk back to the residence halls, Brenna told a friend that she felt a pop and that her head hurt. Her vision blurred. She collapsed.

Calvin’s campus safety team administered CPR, and Brenna was rushed to Spectrum Health downtown. Her brain was bleeding, caused by an arteriovenous malformation (AVM)—a tangle of veins at the back of her brain that forms a clot. A neurosurgeon, about ready to start another case, was called in to diagnose Brenna.

Back in Mentor, Ohio, Tim and Katrina Hannan were jolted awake by a knock on the door and the phone ringing, virtually at the same time.

“Tim answered the door, and it was the police, notifying us of Brenna’s accident,” said Katrina. “Shirley Hoogstra [Calvin’s vice president for student life] was on the phone to give me the same news, along with prayerful encouragement.”

The Hannans gave permission for the emergency surgery and got into their car for the fear-fraught, five-hour drive to Grand Rapids.

“When I first saw Brenna, she didn’t look very different,” Katrina said. “She looked normal and was resting comfortably.” But the Hannans were aware that all was not well inside Brenna’s brain.

She was put in a drug-induced coma and whenever the doctors attempted to ease her out, seizures would start. There were more surgeries, deep sedations and a constant risk of seizures. After months of volatility, Brenna’s condition stabilized.

Brenna has a “drive to breathe,” said Katrina, but cannot breathe deeply enough to sustain enough blood oxygen on her own. After a few months in another facility, Brenna now has her own room in the Assisted Breathing Center at the new Metro Health Hospital campus just south of Grand Rapids.

These days, Katrina Hannan visits her daughter virtually every day, talks and prays with her—and waits. It has been more than one year since the early morning phone call.

“It was an emotional roller-coaster ride in the beginning, with hopes going up and then setbacks,” said Katrina. “Finally, I had to get off the merry-go-round. I had to learn not to let my hopes skyrocket.”

Her faith has been sorely tested. Katrina and Tim’s marriage has been challenged, as they are often in separate states. Her mother, diagnosed with cancer in April, passed away in September. How many tears can one person shed?

“I’ve said, ‘Lord, I can’t do anything. I leave it all in your hands,’” she said.

Calvin community members have surrounded Katrina with love and care. She expressed deep gratitude to Hoogstra and also to Bill and Ellen Corner, Kurt and Anne Schaefer, and Dan and Judy Vander Steen, as well as scores of other supporters.

Brenna Hannan was a national award winner in Irish dance and was preparing to compete in the Midwest Irish Dance Championships. She’s been dancing since the age of 5.

At Calvin, she planned to study Japanese language and communications, with the hope to study in Japan someday and perhaps become a translator. Calvin was the only school to which she wanted to apply.

Katrina Hannan, now a Michigan resident by default, gets up each day and prepares to spend time with her daughter, who turned 19 in August.

In Brenna’s hospital room, one eye flickers open and shut. Her tongue explores around her mouth. There are times you notice a slight movement. The doctors think she can see and hear but are not sure what registers in her brain.

“Brenna survived for a reason. She could have died so easily so many times this past year,” said Katrina, adjusting her daughter’s shamrock-covered blanket.

“You get to a point that there’s nothing left but reliance on God,” she said, her eyes never leaving Brenna. “He shows me that He’s right there, near me, near Brenna.”

In the quiet of Brenna Hannan’s room, as soft prayers are spoken, grief becomes belief.