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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS | VENTURA COUNTY LIFE

Finding the Faith to Pull Through

July 14, 1999|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

Have faith.

Things will work out.

No matter how rotten you feel, you can get through it.

That's not just mush from the empowerment section of your local bookstore.

It's the kind of advice that keeps Maggie Federico going, and it comes from a person who had more reason not to keep going than almost anyone.

Maggie and her husband, Mike, won't be at their jobs with the Port Hueneme Police Department this morning. They'll be at Childrens Hospital in Los Angeles, praying for their 7-month-old daughter, Cammy, as she goes into surgery for a life-threatening heart defect.

After the operation, which could last as long as six hours, they'll call Maggie's new friend--a woman who regularly phones to ask how's the baby, to discuss the finer points of gnocchi and spaghetti sauce, to tell Maggie what she can about how to keep going on.

It's a subject Mary Vincent knows all too well. She was a 15-year-old runaway when Lawrence Singleton raped her, hacked off her forearms and left her in a ditch to die. Everybody knows that story.

But what came after wasn't that much better. After a bad marriage, she and her two children were left homeless, pitching camp in an abandoned gas station. Although she wears prosthetic hooks, the state halted her disability payments. For years, she lived in terror that Singleton would make good his vow of finding her to finish the job he'd botched.

Things got better. A shy woman, Vincent lives in Orange County with her two children and her second husband, an investigator for the district attorney's office there. She pours herself into her family, her cooking, her artwork and sometimes people in trouble.

"She came into my life when I really needed hope," Maggie Federico said.

A year ago, Maggie didn't imagine that hope would be this vapor, this ephemeral thing that she would come to crave.

She had just married Mike Federico, a Port Hueneme police officer. Brianne, her 8-year-old from a previous marriage, was doing great at home and in school. And, at 34, Maggie was newly pregnant.

But a rough pregnancy was followed by a rough delivery. When Maggie asked a nurse if her baby was OK, she was given the kind of well-intended response that would devastate any new parent: "The doctor will talk to you soon."

Cammy, it turned out, was born with Down syndrome, a condition that causes mental retardation. She also was missing two walls inside her heart and had malfunctioning valves. Breathing was twice as difficult for her as for other babies. Only medication would keep her from cardiac arrest, and only open-heart surgery would keep her alive past infancy.

"I cried for five days straight," she said.

Cammy is short for Cameo, a name Maggie distilled from thin air as she and Mike sat watching TV. Maggie liked "Cameo Federico" because it had a great athletic ring to it, a great sound for a softball player or soccer star.

A few months ago, Maggie was given a new duty at work. In addition to rounding up statistics as the department's crime prevention officer, she was to set up community forums on crime.

That's how she wound up on the phone with Mary Vincent. A newspaper article said Vincent was preparing to break her customary silence and mount a campaign for victims' rights. Her first outing will be at the Port Hueneme Community Center on July 26.

But over the next weeks, crime was just a small piece of their rambling conversations. They talked of their mutual passion for Italian food. Vincent was excited about the charcoal drawings she had been doing, and offered to do a portrait of Cammy. Maggie sent her a photo.

She was reluctant to pour out her soul to someone who had been through so much, but it had to happen. She told Vincent about the nightmare of dealing with the HMO, about Cammy's sweetness and her wonderful smile, about the strains a sick kid can work on a marriage, about her terror that her daughter simply would stop breathing.

She told about being summoned to the hospital for the surgery, only to find out that it would be delayed for a pair of heart transplants.

"They gave us the consent form, and at the very bottom of the list of all the things that could happen was 'death,' " she said. "All of a sudden, I had a kind of panic attack, and just wanted to snatch her up and rush her out of there. I couldn't sign it. Mike had to sign it."

Have faith, Mary Vincent told her. Don't worry about why bad things happen to good people. You just have to pull yourself through. The only way to go on is just to keep going.

And who would argue with that?

Steve Chawkins is a Times staff writer. His e-mail address is steve.chawkins@latimes.com.

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