In the fall of 1992, when our younger daughter was 7, she had to undergo open heart surgery. I had just moved from the suspended animation of Concordia, to the salvation, doctoral and otherwise, of Wilfrid Laurier University. Commuting weekly to Ottawa from Kitchener-Waterloo, rather than from Montreal or Toronto. Then a week or so away from everything, back in Ottawa for a circumstance that had been long known, and long deferred.
My then wife and I had known since our younger daughter was months old that there was something not right with her heart. Within her first year, she had been identified as having at least two holes in her heart. The top of the heart had not fused properly at birth; a problem noted as particularly affecting female babies.
With all the stories of miracle heart operations and transplants involving young children, what is often overlooked is that the younger the child is, the worse the success statistics. This is why doctors generally wait as long as possible before deciding that an operation is now necessary.
So for most of her younger years, our younger daughter had very little body fat, shadowed eyes and a heart that whooshed when you listened to it. Having to work much harder to get the oxygen through.
On the day of the operation, at the Children’s Hospital, we said that we wanted to stay with her in intensive care, following the operation. Maybe begged, I can’t remember. I don’t know if they would allow this now. They discouraged it then, but still let us do this. So my then wife and I spent the better part of three days in the intensive care ward, sitting beside our daughter, touching her throughout. All day and night. Together and separately. She was never without at least one parent beside her. Gently touching her forehead, her face, her arms. Big tube into her chest. They had found and repaired three holes, instead of two.
Within a day, she opened her eyes. In the midst of touch. She recognized us. The rest is a bit of a blur. Three days of literally feeling her getting better, watching her get better. Can’t remember the name of the surgeon. Remember him as a quiet man with beard, coming to see her and marveling at her rapid recovery. Surgeon still amazed at the miracles of medicine.
So many emotions in the intensive care. Our daughter is getting better. Across the room, in a more private room into which our daughter is moved on day two or three, there is silence and then sobs. A sharp, shaking cry of a mother and father whose child has just died, while our daughter is getting better.
I walk around the intensive care unit. Encounter a wall of photos of children and messages of thanks to the medical personnel. Looking more closely; the children are all dead. Parents thankful for all that those in medicine tried to do.
Our daughter left the hospital after three days.
There is a place at the Beechwood Cemetery in Ottawa: the Garden of Angels. It is for young children who have died, and who (yet) have no grave with their parents. When my younger daughter and I go the cemetery to visit her grandparents, we always spend as much, if not more time, at the Garden of Angels. She seems to have a particular emotion towards those who are there. Children on the other side of the room, met with shaking sobs of parents, while our daughter was wheeled out into the sunlight, ready to stand. Touched.
Postscript, April 23, 2012: I wrote to the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario to see if I could find the name of the doctor, plus to encourage the hospital to continue to let parents stay with their children, while in intensive care. Alex Munter, the Chief Executive Officer of the hospital, replied, stating that the hospital strongly encourages parents to stay with their children. I was later informed that there has been a recent expansion of the intensive care unit, part of which was to make the stay of parents more comfortable.
I was also provided with the name of the doctor who performed the miracle: Dr. Gary Cornell, then Chief of Cardiovascular Surgery, now retired. They thought he was living somewhere outside of Ottawa; I hope to find out. What I did find out, from an internet search, was that, prior to coming to Ottawa, Dr. Cornell was a pediatric cardiac surgeon at the Janeway Children’s Hospital in St. John’s Newfoundland. He trained Dr. Carlos Enriquez, whose family fled the 1980s civil war in Nicaragua. Part of Dr. Cornell’s legacy is Dr. Carlos Enriquez, who is also a cardiac surgeon and the medical director of the hospital’s emergency department.