(OSV News) — Jake Finkbonner first decided to become a medical doctor when he was in middle school.
“I’d love to help people the same way that so many people have helped me,” the 23-year-old from Ferndale, Washington, explained to OSV News.
The recent college graduate drew his inspiration from the doctors who rushed to rescue him from an aggressive flesh-eating bacteria that tore through his face more than 17 years ago. They had help: Finkbonner’s family and community turned to then-Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha to intercede for the 6-year-old’s life. The day after her relic entered his hospital room, the infection — without explanation — stopped.
The cure became the second and final miracle needed for the canonization of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th-century Kanien’kéha:ka (Mohawk) Catholic and the first Native American woman to be declared a saint. She was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI Oct. 21, 2012.
Finkbonner recently spoke with OSV News about the miracle, his apparent visit to heaven while hospitalized, his faith, and his special connection to St. Kateri Tekakwitha, including his own Native American heritage.
When people hear his story, Finkbonner hopes that they first take away the importance of having faith.
“I can’t really convey this message as well as my parents, but in listening to them tell their story of watching me and everything that they went through, I would say that it would be to never, never lose faith,” he said.
In 2006, Finkbonner was playing basketball with the local Boys & Girls Club when he cut his lip on the supporting bar at the base of the portable basketball hoop.
At first, doctors assured his family that Finkbonner, who was almost 6 years old, would be fine. But after he visited the family doctor a third time, this time with a dangerously swollen face, he was sent to the local emergency room. From there, he flew via airlift to Seattle Children’s Hospital.
Medical professionals later discovered that Finkbonner had contracted flesh-eating bacteria called strep A through his cut.
For most of his time in the hospital, Finkbonner said, he remained unconscious in a drug-induced coma. He underwent daily surgeries as doctors removed the accumulating dead scar tissue from his face.
His sixth birthday came and went before his parents contacted Father Tim Sauer, then-pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Ferndale, about administering last rites. He coordinated for a priest to visit and, at the same time, recommended the family turn to Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha for help.
Finkbonner and the holy woman shared similarities, from their Native American heritage (Finkbonner is a quarter Native American, of the Lummi nation) to suffering from attacks to their faces (smallpox scarred St. Kateri Tekakwitha’s face).
Soon after, Finkbonner’s mother, Elsa, began praying to God for a sign. That sign arrived when his father’s aunt, who is a religious sister, visited the hospital — and brought a friend with her.
Upon arrival, his relative introduced her friend as “Sister Kateri,” Finkbonner said. Sister Kateri not only shared a name with Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, but also placed a relic of the holy woman by his bedside.
“It was actually that next day that (the doctors) said, ‘Yeah, the infection stopped, and we don’t know why,’” Finkbonner said. “It was all recovery from that point.”
A few weeks later, he returned home after months in the hospital. He faced a long road ahead: Every year, until he turned 18, he underwent reconstructive surgery.
“I had to learn how to walk again,” he remembered. “Talking was a little tough because of still much scar tissue on my face. They gave me a big plastic mask to wear because so much of my skin had been exposed.”
His family, friends, and school community at Assumption Catholic School in Bellingham, Washington, supported him and his family every step of the way, he emphasized. He remembered, in particular, when his kindergarten teacher held a “mask day” where all of the students wore masks that they made so that he did not feel alone.
“All the support from the community and coaches for my sports, my teachers, my friends, my family, and all of their helping me get back to normal life was very meaningful,” he stressed. “It helped make me who I am today.”
While he was unconscious for most of his hospital stay, Finkbonner remembers at least one incident he believed took place: visiting heaven.
“I had a sensation that I was waking up, that I could hear doctors talking to my parents,” he described. “I could feel my body start to be lighter. And, instead of standing, I flew upwards.”
When he opened his eyes, he found himself in heaven.
“I remember a feeling of warmth and comfort and everything was very bright,” he said.
He also spotted familiar faces: his Uncle Tom, his godfather who had passed away just two weeks before of a heart attack, and his mother’s grandmother, who died before he was born.
“I went up and I gave him a hug and I remember he breathed warm air on me,” he revealed. “For a moment, his heart left his body and it came into mine and I had two beating hearts.”
When Finkbonner asked if he could stay, Jesus responded that everyone back home still needed him.
“I remember feeling super crushed and terribly sad about the whole thing,” Finkbonner said, “but in my heart I knew that he was right.”
Before leaving, he recalled hearing what he described as 1,000 pennies dropping on concrete all at once. His body started to feel heavy.
“Just like that,” he said, “I was back.”
According to his mother, the experience occurred after his “initial waking up” from the coma.
“I don’t remember any of that (initial waking up) part, but I certainly remember waking up from that one,” Finkbonner said. “For me, I’d say, that was my awakening.”
Finkbonner recalled hearing about how, before his recovery, his parents, Donny and Elsa, placed their trust in God.
One day, he said, his mother read the Bible verses where God commands Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. Afterward, his parents entered the hospital chapel to pray.
“They essentially said, ‘He is yours. Do with him what you will,’” Finkbonner said. “And if it was God’s will to take me home, then so be it. They will accept that.”
His parents’ faith in that moment inspired him, he said.
“For them to never lose faith and to believe in God so heavily, I can only be filled with admiration for them,” he commented.
In addition to attending Sunday Mass, Finkbonner participated in activities at the Newman Center, or Catholic campus ministry, at Western Washington University before graduating in June.
During his daily prayers, he regularly turns to St. Kateri Tekakwitha. He frequently prays in his car where, he said, a rosary hangs from the rearview mirror.
“As far as daily prayers go, (the) majority of my prayer is gratitude,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff for me to be grateful for.”
Katie Yoder writes for OSV News from the Washington, D.C., area.