In sharing story of own leg amputation, Trenton bishop bolsters 11-year-old as she faced similar surgery

Daniel T. O'Connell, Trenton, N.J.,'s diocesan associate director for curriculum and instruction, and Emma Close pose at her school, St. Mary Academy in Manahawkin, N.J., May 18, 2023. Because of a birth defect, some months prior she had to undergo amputation of her right lower leg and foot. At right, after a three-year pandemic delay, Emma was baptized April 23 and poses for a photo outside St. Mary Church in Barnegat, N.J. (OSV New photo/courtesy the Close family)

(OSV News) -- To many, it could seem that Emma Close has lived a lifetime in her 11 years: awaiting an adoptive family in China for eight years while receiving no formal education, her 2019 adoption just before COVID-19 shut down her country of origin, and a birth defect that required an amputation shortly thereafter.

However, Emma has kept a positive spirit and embraced her new parents -- Sandy and Bob Close, her education in St. Mary Academy in Manahawkin and her Catholic faith, culminating in her baptism April 23. And the support she has received even extends to a notable diocesan figure: Trenton Bishop David M. O'Connell.

The bishop recently wrote a letter to the third-grader, upon hearing of Emma's leg amputation and prosthesis. He also shared some photos of his leg, his learning to walk again and one of him with Pope Francis.

"We both share something in common: You and I each have a prosthetic leg below the knee," Bishop O'Connell wrote. "Although it is not the same as having my natural leg, I manage to get around pretty well and can perform my duties as Bishop of the Diocese of Trenton without any real problems."

"Just like me, Bishop O'Connell had to learn to walk again," Emma told the, the diocesan news outlet. "I think he was very brave. I know it hurt a lot when he had his operation, because I remember how I felt."

On Dec. 29, 2014, Bishop O'Connell had to undergo an emergency amputation of his left leg midway between knee and ankle due to serious infections caused by diabetes. He responded well to physical therapy, learning to walk again using a prosthetic leg. He was able to return to public ministry by Holy Week of March 2015, which was his goal.

Sandy said that although her daughter was a bit anxious about what others would think of her leg, "when she learned (about) Bishop O'Connell ... she realized that she was not alone and was so excited when he shared his story and photos with her," Sandy recalled.

Emma's journey began in an orphanage, in a country that has long limited the number of children to one per family. When she was in graduate school, Sandy had researched China’s one-child policy (in place from 1970 to 2016); she and Bob knew they would eventually adopt a child from China. The couple have six children older than Emma, four of whom also are adopted.

A medical condition called fibular hemimelia caused Emma's right lower leg and foot to form improperly in the womb. Her surgery allowed her to learn to walk on a prosthetic leg just a few weeks afterward, and "at five weeks post-op she was able to skip!" Sandy exclaimed. "She has shown us that she can overcome any obstacle ... this disability will not slow her down."

"I love going to St. Mary Academy," Emma said, "because I love the principal Ms. (Lizanne) Coyne and love learning about Mary and baby Jesus and God. I have made a lot of new, good friends who care about me. My teacher, Mrs. (Pamela) Kovacs, has taught me that I can count on God's love every day."

Her baptism was very important to her, she said, "because then I knew I would someday go to heaven and be with God."

"We are so grateful for all that Bishop O'Connell has done for our daughter," Sandy said. "He helped her feel better about herself and showed her that being different does not have to ... limit what she can accomplish."


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