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Published: Monday, 10/18/2010

Baby's illness at heart of Christian singer's songs


On April 12, Matt and Sarah Hammitt of Perrysburg went for an ultrasound test to see if, after having two tow-haired girls, their third child would be a boy.

"We were so excited to find out we were having a boy," she said.

But that wasn't the only news the Hammitts received that day.

"Within 30 minutes, we also found out he had a severe heart defect," Mr. Hammitt said. "When they broke the news to us, it definitely looked like a pretty grim situation."

Mr. Hammitt, who is the lead singer and songwriter in the Grammy-nominated Christian rock band Sanctus Real, said his son's precarious health forced him to look for answers.

"It caused me to ask probably more of life's hardest questions in a short amount of time than I've asked in my 29 years of life," he said. "I don't think I ever doubted God was there, I was just trying to figure out where he was in all of it. And that's been the toughest question."

Bowen Matthew Hammitt arrived at 7:59 p.m. on Sept. 9 at the University of Michigan Women's Hospital, weighing 7 pounds, 7 ounces. The name Bowen means "strong, victorious one," and Matthew means "God's gift," the Hammitts said.

The couple weren't sure if they would even get to hold their newborn baby the night he was born, but the nurses gave them a few quick minutes together before whisking Bowen off for tests.

As diagnosed in the womb, Bowen was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, or HLHS, a congenital condition in which parts of the left side of the heart are underdeveloped. If not treated, the condition is fatal.

Doctors have devised a three-step series of surgeries that include building a new aorta, inserting a shunt to maintain blood flow, and connecting veins to blood vessels to the lungs.

Mr. Hammitt said the day before the first surgery, he kept placing his hand on Bowen's "smooth little chest" because he knew "it will never feel the same."

The first operation was performed early on Sept. 12, when Bowen was less than 3 days old, and everything went well. The baby was placed on life support afterward, as expected, and the Hammitts were told they couldn't touch him for several weeks.

"You ask hundreds of questions and you don't understand why," Mr. Hammitt said. "You wonder if it's something you did. … Most of those questions are natural. But you want to point the finger at something or someone. You want answers. The hardest thing about all this is there are no easy answers. Tom Petty, the great philosopher, said it best: 'The waiting is the hardest part.' "

Bowen was born at 7:59 p.m. on Sept. 9 and held briefly by his family before he was whisked away. His heart's left side is underdeveloped. He had surgery less than three days after birth. Bowen was born at 7:59 p.m. on Sept. 9 and held briefly by his family before he was whisked away. His heart's left side is underdeveloped. He had surgery less than three days after birth.

More than a year ago, long before little Bowen entered the picture, Mr. Hammitt wrote the lyrics for Sanctus Real's fifth CD for Sparrow Records, the largest Christian label.

There was no way he could have known how poignant the title of the new disc, and a recurring theme throughout the music, would be: "Pieces of a Real Heart."

"It's one out of a thousand reasons that I've had in the past few months that support my belief that nothing is coincidence, that there's a mastermind - meaning God - behind our lives and that our lives have a greater purpose than I could ever understand," Mr. Hammitt said. "It's not just the words and the heart on the cover, but I really believe he was preparing me to go through this time."

When he was writing the songs for the album, he said, "I was starting to process all these questions about life and why these things happen. [The song] 'These Things Take Time,' in essence, questions the nature of good and evil and why do bad things happen. And in 'Redeemer,' the bridge says, 'I don't have every answer in life, but I'm trusting you one day at a time, 'cause you make a weak heart stay alive forever."

The last song on the disc is titled "Keep My Heart Alive."

Along with Mr. Hammitt, Sanctus Real, which is in its 15th year, features original members Chris Rohman on guitar and Mark Graalman on drums - all three graduates of Toledo Christian High School. Bassist Dan Gartley joined in 2004 and guitarist Pete Prevost in 2006.

Sarah, Claire, Emmerson, and Matt Hammitt found out in April that their baby would be a boy and he would have a severe heart defect that required surgery after birth. Sarah, Claire, Emmerson, and Matt Hammitt found out in April that their baby would be a boy and he would have a severe heart defect that required surgery after birth.

The Toledo-based group has had seven No. 1 hits on the Christian charts, won a Dove Award in 2005 for its second CD, Fight the Tide, and was nominated for a Grammy last year for the 2008 album "We Need Each Other."

The band has cut back on its tour schedule, leaving on its bus for three or four days at a time instead of longer trips so Mr. Hammitt can be home with hihs family more often.

His wife stays in Ann Arbor to be close to Bowen's side, while the Hammitt girls, Emmerson, 4, and Claire, 2, shuttle between Perrysburg and Ann Arbor with their parents and grandparents.

In the midst of dealing with Bowen's health problems, Sanctus Real's latest single, "Lead Me," has shot to the top of the CHR Christian radio chart, where it just marked its seventh straight week at No. 1.

Mr. Rohman said it's been "an interesting season for us" to be getting more radio play than ever, at a time when Mr. Hammitt is going through such a challenging time.

"I've known Matt since I was 15 in high school, and seeing him go through this and the way that he's grown through it instead of getting bitter or being upset, it's just incredible. It really is an inspiration," Mr. Rohman said.

He said he can see a tremendous impact on the fans when Mr. Hammitt talks about the songs on stage.

"It all has so much more meaning now, not just the songs and what they mean, but the love of Christ through it all. Matt's kicking it up a few notches," Mr. Rohman said.

For Mr. Hammitt, he believes the experiences he and his wife have been through can be used to help others.

"With all the success Sanctus Real is having right now, and I am more excited than ever about what's happening with Sanctus Real, I also see what's going on with Bowen as expanding my opportunity to make a difference in this life," Mr. Hammitt said.

"I've already written songs slated for an album that will be specifically tailored at comforting people who are going through tragedy.

"You can be angry, you can look at it through the lens of anger or bitterness, but we choose to look at it through the lens of faith and believe God is going to allow something good to come out of it.

"Even if the worst happens and we lose Bowen, we believe God has a plan and we trust that, and through that lens we can see little 'minimiracles' all around us," Mr. Hammitt said.

For more information and updates on Bowen Hammitt, go to bowensheart.com.

Contact David Yonke at:


or 419-724-6154.

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