Nearly 15 years later, Jake Finkbonner’s remarkable recovery from flesh-eating bacteria continues to strengthen people’s faith
Elsa Finkbonner had been praying and praying for days, wondering if God was hearing her pleas.
Elsa and her husband Donny were ready to give their 6-year-old son Jake back to God if that was his will, but also were asking God to heal him of the flesh-eating bacteria that had invaded his body.
“We prayed that Jake would be saved, but in the end we were willing to accept the answer ‘No,’” Elsa said.
The Ferndale family’s life-and-death ordeal began during an ordinary kindergarten basketball game on February 11, 2006.
It was the final minute and Jake was heading to the hoop for a layup. When he stopped suddenly under the net, players from the opposing team ran into him, which pushed him into the base of the portable hoop. He cut his lip on the base, unknowingly contaminated with strep A bacteria that can cause necrotizing fasciitis.
Within two days, the little boy’s swollen lip turned into a full-fledged invasion of the bacteria in his face. It was so serious, doctors at Seattle Children’s Hospital explained, that they were literally trying to save Jake’s life.
“We were kind of floored” by the news, Donny said. So he and Elsa held hands and prayed: “Thy will be done, God. If it’s your will to take him home, he’s yours, take him,” Elsa said. “We knew that God couldn’t do his work if we were clinging onto him so tight because he’s ours — but he’s not ours. And so that’s where we just let him go — ‘your will be done.’”
The couple clung tight to their faith as surgeons removed destroyed tissue from Jake’s face every day, sometimes twice a day, in an effort to stop the bacteria’s spread. Before each surgery, Donny and Elsa stopped at the doors as Jake was wheeled into the operating room, raising their hands and praying for God to guide the hands and eyes of Jake’s doctors.
“Every day, the news kept getting worse with Jake,” Elsa said, “and I just remember thinking, ‘Does God ever hear me? Is he hearing my prayers?’”
A message from God
At the suggestion of their pastor, Father Tim Sauer (then assigned to St. Joseph Parish in Ferndale), Donny and Elsa, their families, Jake’s kindergarten class at Assumption School in Bellingham and many others were praying for the intercession of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk woman of the 17th century who converted to Catholicism.
In 2006, Jake’s classmates at Assumption School in Bellingham prayed a daily rosary for him while he was in the hospital. Photo: Courtesy Assumption School
Father Sauer had noted the similarities between Jake and Kateri: both are Native American (Jake is half Lummi Indian) and as a youth Kateri acquired smallpox that disfigured her face. She needed one more miracle to become a saint, Father Sauer said, “and the similarities were so close, he insisted that we pray,” Elsa said. So they did.
On February 23, Donny’s aunt arrived at the hospital with a religious sister and introduced her to Elsa.
“Her name was Sister Kateri [Mitchell] and I just remember looking at her and I got a chill thinking, ‘You’re a messenger,’” Elsa said. The family had never met anyone named Kateri, and now here she was. “You are the message that God is hearing our prayer,” Elsa told her.
Sister Kateri, then executive director of the Tekakwitha Conference in Louisiana, brought with her a relic of Blessed Kateri. Placing the relic on Jake’s leg, she prayed with Elsa, asking for Kateri’s intercession to heal Jake.
Jake’s surgeons hadn’t expected him to make it through that night, but the next morning, they wheeled him into surgery for what they thought would be a last-ditch effort to stop the bacteria and save his life.
After just 45 minutes, Jake’s parents were told the doctors wanted to see them. They feared the worst.
“We were waiting for the news that he didn’t survive,” Donny said.
But the words that came from the doctor’s mouth answered the thousands of prayers of Donny, Elsa, their families, their parish and school community and scores of people from near and far.
“‘I don’t know how to tell you this, but it stopped,’” Donny recalled the doctor saying. “‘There’s nothing there. It’s like a volcano and this volcano has been erupting for weeks and all of a sudden it has stopped.’”
They were stunned. If Jake survived the next 24 hours, the doctors said, surgeons could start the reconstruction process.
“I had the first breath of life put right back in me,” Elsa said.
‘Jake the miracle boy’
Elsa and Donny knew in their hearts that Jake’s healing was a miracle, and it didn’t matter if the Catholic Church never made it official.
But after an investigation, in December 2011 the church declared Jake’s healing the second miracle needed to elevate Blessed Kateri to sainthood. She was canonized October 21, 2012, with 12-year-old Jake, his parents and his sisters Miranda and Malia in Rome for the celebration, where they met Pope Benedict XVI.
Jake Finkbonner and his family wave to Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peter’s Square after the October 21, 2012, canonization Mass for seven saints, including St. Kateri Tekakwitha. Jake’s healing was the miracle needed to elevate Kateri to sainthood. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring
In the early years after Jake’s healing, the family spoke to many groups about their experience.
Although he liked the attention, eventually “it felt like we were just saying the same thing over and over again,” said Jake, now 20 and a student at Western Washington University who aims to become a doctor and participates at the Newman Center. “But at the same time, I feel like that’s kind of what we were supposed to do. We’ve had a lot of people come and thank us for sharing our story because they say it helped bring them back to the church or things like that.”
When the family sat down with Northwest Catholic recently for a virtual interview, it had been a few years since they had recounted their story.
“Every time hearing Mom and Dad tell it, it still blows me away,” Jake said, “because I feel like a spectator, and obviously I wasn’t. It’s still something that reminds me of my faith.”
Jake shared a story of how his miraculous cure continues to help others. Driving home one day after dropping his sister off at volleyball practice, he debated whether to stop for an oil change. He was tired and thought he would skip it, but at the last minute decided to go ahead.
While in the waiting room at the business, one of the employees came out to greet him. “Hey, are you Mr. Finkbonner?” he asked Jake. “I said, ‘Yes, sir, I am.’ And he said, ‘Are you Jake the miracle boy?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, I sure am.’”
The man told Jake a bit of his own story, how he was struggling with drug addiction and had been praying about it. Two days earlier, the man said he had prayed, “‘God, at this point I need a miracle. Please tell me that you’re listening.’ And then he sends me you, a miracle in the flesh.”
“I was like, ah geez, all I wanted was an oil change and I’m helping this guy out by accident,” Jake said.
“That’s not an accident, that was God’s will,” Elsa said. “Your presence was all he needed.”
Jake has undergone some 35 surgeries to reconstruct his face after it was ravaged by flesh-eating bacteria. Photo: Courtesy Finkbonner family
A visit to heaven
On the day the doctors thought Jake wasn’t going to survive the night, he had an out-of-body experience.
He remembers hearing the voices of his family and doctors talking around him, upset because the news was not good. “I remember feeling my body start to feel lighter and I could feel myself rising up,” Jake said. “When I opened my eyes, I found myself in what I thought to be heaven.”
He met his mom’s grandmother, who died before he was born, and ran into his uncle Tom, his dad’s brother who died two weeks before Jake’s accident. He gave them both hugs and felt comforted by having family with him.
While Jake was visiting heaven, Elsa was feeling a terrible void within her. “I felt that he had left this earth, but I had no proof,” she said.
A few weeks later, after Jake had been moved out of the intensive care unit, Elsa went into his hospital room and Jake sat up in bed, raised his hands and said, “I’ve been raised.”
“I knew exactly what he was talking about but I wanted to hear it from his mouth,” Elsa said.
Although some of the experience has faded for Jake, the details he shared with his mother that day are “embedded in my brain,” she said.
Heaven was beautiful, bright and warm, and angels were singing. Jake had wings and could see his family from up above. They were in the hospital, crying because he was dead. He wanted to stay in heaven, but his uncle said he couldn’t because his family needed him.
“And then you said that you gave Jesus a hug, and at one point Jesus’ heart had left him and entered into your body and then it went back.”
When it was time to return, Jake’s wings disappeared and it sounded like “a thousand little pennies falling from the sky” before he found himself back in his bed at the hospital.
“His day in heaven, that was my day in hell,” Elsa said. “We were at complete opposites, but thank God he brought us back together.”
Jake Finkbonner reconnects with Sister Kateri Mitchell after Mass on the Lummi Reservation in 2018. Photo: Janis Olson
Giving it back to God
Jake’s healing has strengthened the Finkbonners’ faith and imparted lessons for their journey through life.
“I feel sorry for people that don’t have faith,” Donny said, “because I feel like we have something so valuable, that we know in the end what will happen to us. We know that there is a heaven because our son has told us about it. And we’ve seen what the power of prayer can be.”
“There’s always points in your life that you’re struggling with something,” Donny said, and “prayer can help you open your heart to accepting someone or something that will help you … to hear God’s message, God’s word on what to do.”
When people ask Jake about his “takeaways” from the experience, the biggest one is the omnipresence of Christ.
“I think Christ is in all of us and I think he has a way of intertwining all of us so he’s always present for each us of when we need him,” Jake said.
For Elsa, the experience of Jake’s suffering and healing shows that “everybody is where they’re supposed to be at any given time; no matter how difficult the situation is, there’s a purpose behind it.”
When people ask how to deal with difficulties, Elsa tells them, “You give it back to God. But you have to remember that just because you ask for something doesn’t mean you’re going to get it.”
“To me it’s just all about the trust — that that’s where your heart and mind is, is your faith in God.”
Northwest Catholic - October 2020
Jean Parietti is the local news editor for NWCatholic.org and features editor for Northwest Catholic magazine. You can reach her at [email protected].
Jean Parietti es editora local para el sitio web NWCatholic.org y destacada editora de la revista Noroeste Católico/Northwest Catholic. Pueden contactarle en: [email protected].
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