On June 22, 1976, Reid and I were blessed with a beautiful healthy baby girl – 6 lbs. 1 oz, 19 ½” long and a full head of dark hair. God had given us this beautiful miracle, perfect in every way. I said a little prayer that first night as I sat in my hospital bed holding my precious little daughter. I remember saying that I knew that she belonged to Him and that Reid and I were so thankful and blessed to be given the opportunity to care for her during her time on this earth and asking for His guidance as we began the journey.
Reid and I were diligent in seeing that she had proper medical care. We faithfully took her to all her “well baby” check-ups. It was during one of those check-ups that one of the Doctors mentioned a heart murmur. He said that our regular Doctor had been making notations of the murmur in her chart each visit, however it was never mentioned to us. The Doctor explained that there is a little flap near the heart that closes after a baby is born. Sometimes the flap doesn’t close properly but, over time, usually by the time the child is 5 years old, it closes completely. Since Dionne was nearing her 4th birthday and the murmur was getting more prominent instead of slighter, he suggested that we take her to Dr. Fletcher, a Children’s Cardiac Specialist in Harrisburg. That was in March of 1980. On April 16th, Dionne was admitted to Harrisburg General Hospital for a right and left heart catheterization and angiography to be done the following day. Everything went well except for a few anxious minutes when they lost her peripheral pulse following the closure of the arteriography. Although her pulse was weak, we were able to take her home the following day.
On May 6th we were informed of the results of the heart catheterization. Dionne had a significant atrial septal defect and a small ventricular septal defect. Simply explained, she had two holes in her heart – one in the upper left chamber and one in the lower left chamber. There was a mild degree of pulmonic stenosis present as well. We were told that surgery would be planned for a later date. Wow, our beautiful healthy little girl wasn’t as healthy as we thought. Every prayer ended with a petition to God for His healing and will to be done in her life.
We continued taking Dionne to see Dr. Fletcher every six months. At each visit he marveled at how well she was doing physically. Her energy was over the top. He told us that she would have to have the surgery before she turned 8 or 9 years old. Dionne’s heart was pumping her blood twice – once normally and once shooting through the holes from right to left. The magic number of 8 or 9 years of age was so that she would have the surgery before she got her period. Her heart would not be able to withstand the extra flow of blood each month and it would kill her – alarming words for any parent to hear. The alternative to not having anything done was that our precious daughter would not live past thirty years of age. Hearing that news, we knew we had no choice but to face surgery.
As each 6-month appointment came and went, the decision was made to wait. When Dionne turned 8, I just knew that we’d be told we would have to schedule the surgery. Again, surgery was not mentioned. When she turned 9, we questioned Dr. Fletcher about what he had told us. He said that she was doing so great and he thought that waiting until she was older was better because she would be able to understand what was happening and would be able to cooperate with the doctors and nurses. She would have to be on a bypass machine and her lungs would be collapsed. Once she’d be taken off the bypass machine, she’d have to breathe deeply to build her lungs back up and that would be painful. Children don’t always cooperate because of the pain.
She was actively playing Little League softball and her activities were not curtailed in any way. Most people, including her friends didn’t even know she had an issue with her heart. Dr. Fletcher said that she should not be able to keep up with children her own age. She should be tired all the time. This was so not the case with Dionne. She had the energy of two kids.
When Dionne turned 10 ½, Dr. Fletcher told us that he was retiring and that we’d need to find another doctor. He said that he could recommend another children’s cardiologist or since they usually only treat children until they turn 12, he could recommend a regular cardiologist. Rather than subject Dionne to two doctor changes within a relatively short period of time, we opted for a regular cardiologist. Dr. Fletcher made arrangements for Dionne to see Dr. Felix Gutierrez. He was wonderful with her and she took to him right away. He went over her records provided by Dr. Fletcher and did some testing of his own. He told us he’d be in touch with his findings.
Within a few days, I received a call while at work from Dr. Gutierrez. He begins by telling me that Dionne needs to have surgery and it needed to be done as soon as possible. The blood shooting through the holes was enlarging the left side of her heart and the mitral valve was being damaged. In his opinion, that mitral valve would need to be replaced. As I am sitting behind my desk in total shock and disbelief, I hear Dr. Gutierrez saying something about the required surgery was extensive and quite complicated and that it could not be done locally. He said that it could be done in Philadelphia, Cleveland, DC or at the Mayo Clinic. He said that I needed to discuss all this with Reid and get back to him as soon as possible.
Up until this point, Dionne really wasn’t aware that she was going to have to be operated on. She knew she had a problem with her heart and that she had to see her heart Doctor twice a year, but nothing more. Her heart never interfered with her activities or her sports so she never talked about it or gave it a second thought. Reid and I didn’t talk about it much either. So here we were, facing the most frightening thing that had ever happened in our family. We sat down with Dionne and explained that she needed to have her heart fixed and that required surgery. We took Dionne and met with Dr. Gutierrez. Having no clue about any of the facilities that he mentioned, we asked for his opinion and recommendation. He told us that he wasn’t familiar with any of the surgeons except for the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. His cousin, Dr. Puga was the Chief Cardiologist there and could recommend him because he knew of his work. That was good enough for us. We trusted Dr. Gutierrez completely so our decision was made. We were heading for the Mayo Clinic.
The next two weeks were a whirlwind. Dionne began talking about her sick heart, the surgery and the possibility of dying. We tried to comfort her and answer her questions as best we could. One day after school, as I was getting dinner ready, she brought up the subject of dying. I told her that she wasn’t going to die. She blurted out, “How do you know?” I said, “Because I know.” She said, “Don’t tell me that. I know that anytime something happens to your heart, there is a chance you could die. I could die.” In frustration, I said, “Then you’ll go to Heaven.” In tears, she said, “But I won’t know anyone there.” I said, “Sure you will,” and I named a few great grandparents that had passed away. It was a very tough time for all our family. One evening, Reid’s father who was a Pastor came over to talk with us. He knew the fear and anxiety that Dionne was having. He also knew the fear that Reid and I were trying to keep hidden. Pappy Pletcher talked with all of us, including our son Andrew. It was important for us to include him in all of this so that he didn’t feel alienated from what was going on around him. Pappy read scripture and had prayer with us. Then he asked Dionne is she’d like to be anointed, explaining what it was and what it meant. She decided that she did. We talked with our Pastor and that following Sunday, during worship, he and Pappy Pletcher anointed Dionne. It was such an emotional and spiritually uplifting service. There wasn’t a dry eye in the congregation. Following that service, something changed. Dionne was no longer afraid. She seemed to have total peace with her upcoming surgery. What a miracle.
The following week, the four of us were taking our first airplane trip half way across the country to the Mayo Clinic. We had to arrive a day early because we decided that I would give my platelets to be used in Dionne’s surgery rather than getting them from the platelet bank. Dr. Puga talked with Dionne and used a rag doll to explain what he would be doing to fix her broken heart. He told her that she could take the doll along with her own Cabbage Patch doll with her into the operating room.
The next morning, the nurses got her ready for surgery. They put a little green cap on her head and gave her a shot to make her drowsy. They put her on a gurney, tucked the rag doll under one arm and the Cabbage Patch doll under the other. Reid, Andrew and I were all standing there wishing her well. We all had tears in our eyes – all but Dionne. She looked up at Reid and said, “Don’t cry Daddy, I’m going to be just fine.”
The Lord was with Dionne and blessed her that day. What was such a complicated surgery that couldn’t be done around here was a textbook case at the Mayo Clinic. The two holes turned out to be one huge hole extending from the upper left chamber into the lower left chamber. The mitral valve was able to be repaired instead of replaced. We were told she’d be in intensive care for a week and she was out within 24 hours. Dionne was not eating the meals they were serving her. She was on a salt-free diet which she detested. Within several days of her surgery we were able to take her out of the hospital on little “field trips” to restaurants so that she would eat. The surgery was on July 20th and we were back home on the 28th. One year later, Dionne was playing in the Girl’s Little League World Series in Kalamazoo, Michigan like nothing had ever happened.
Dr. Gutierrez did all the follow-up visits. He explained to Dionne that because they had to saw her ribs in half to do the surgery, she would experience pain as she started to develop. True to his word, that did happen. Twice we got calls from school officials that we needed to go pick Dionne up and take her to the hospital because she was having trouble breathing. I explained to the nurse Dionne’s situation and asked to talk to her on the phone. I reminded her of what Dr. Gutierrez had said. She calmed down and was able to breathe normally. Her high school softball and basketball coaches worried about her playing their sport, but her heart never got in the way of her performance. She loved playing ball.
Dionne continued to see Dr. Gutierrez on an annual basis and still does to this day. On her visit after she was married, Dr. Gutierrez said that he didn’t know what her plans were concerning children, but if she was planning to have any, she should not wait too long. The younger she was when she had them, the better it would be for her heart. Dionne continues to amaze her doctor. She has blessed us with four beautiful grandchildren. The fourth one was born a month before her 35th birthday. How’s that for having them when you’re young?
Through the grace of God and his blessings, our precious little girl (she’ll always be our little girl) is a wonderful woman, excellent educator, loving wife and devoted mother.
Thank you Lord for blessing our lives with her presence.