A Mother's Last Gift

updated 08/22/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/22/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Even at the moment of her birth, it was apparent that Susan Anne Catherine Torres was no ordinary preemie. She let out "a very sweet cry," says neonatologist Donna Tilden-Archer. When the doctor touched her tiny foot, she kicked back so energetically that Tilden-Archer nearly dropped an IV she was holding.

The baby's vigor was all the more remarkable given the circumstances of her birth. Three months ago her mother, Susan Torres, 26, was rushed to the hospital, unconscious from a brain hemorrhage caused by the recurrence of a melanoma for which she'd been treated nine years earlier. There, 15 weeks into her pregnancy, Torres was declared brain dead, leaving her husband, Jason Torres, 26, with a tough decision. He could end Susan's life support—or continue it until their baby could survive outside the womb. "A nurse told Jason, 'What would Susan want?'" recalls his brother Justin, 30. "That was clarifying: Susan would say, 'Go for this baby.'"

Jason, who quit his job as an Arlington, Va., printing salesman, spent the next 12 weeks at his wife's bedside. Susan's belly continued to grow, but so did her cancer. On Aug. 2 doctors, concerned that Susan's weakened condition would endanger the child, performed a C-section. "You want to be happy at the birth of a child, and it was such a relief," says Justin. "But there was also a foreboding because we knew what was coming next." The next day Jason held his wife's hand as her respirator was disconnected. "Nothing can prepare you for it," he says. "To go from one room and be overjoyed by life into another room where you're weighed down by the goodbye."

Baby Susan will need periodic checks to be sure the cancer was not passed along to her. But with luck, she will fulfill her dad's dreams. "I hope she has a long, healthy, happy life," he says. "We don't need much from her. Having her here is gift enough."

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