One early December morning in the year 2000, Dr. Winfield Wells strolled into my daughter Holly’s room at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. His street clothes looked like Pat Boone circa 1962: polo shirt, plaid golf pants and white shoes. Holly’s cardiologist said he was the best pediatric cardiac surgeon on the planet and I think he knew it.
His team of doctors clamored around him like an entourage with their clipboards and white coats. He said, “It looks like we don’t need to put in a pacemaker after all!” A few days earlier he easily patched up Holly’s 15-month-old heart with Dacron like a piece of fabric on a rag doll.
She was born with a large ventricular septal defect. After the surgery, Dr. Wells doubted Holly’s heart would beat on its own. I spoke with God the night before and said if she needs a pacemaker then she needs one. My husband Tim and I will deal with it.
After Holly’s birth, no one doubted Holly’s survival. She just needed extra care. My parents helped us out for the first 10 months of her life. My mom said she would never leave me to take care of Holly by myself. I knew why. My grandmother died from something similar – a leaky heart valve at age 39. When I told Mom the news about Holly, she immediately put her hands over her face and wailed, no doubt remembering how she watched her young mother pass away.
It took Holly 15 months to gain enough weight for the operation. Dr. Wells said he could wait until after the holidays but we said no, we wanted Holly taken care of right away. If she was in the hospital on Christmas day then so be it. We could celebrate the “normal” way in the future.
Most people find the antiseptic smell of hospital rooms annoying but I find it comforting. That smell reminds me we are in the hands of God and that He sends us angels in the bodies of doctors and nurses clad in white to fix whatever needs fixing. The morning of Holly’s surgery, a tall nurse with perfect makeup and a bright smile with a Christmas bow on her surgical cap said, “Now is the time for hugs and kisses,” before they took her into OR. She gave Holly a teddy bear with a tiny green surgical mask.
Afterward, Holly woke up with tubes and wires attached. She opened her mouth to cry but no sound came out. My husband left the room but I stayed so she could hear my voice. She had such small soft hands scarred from surgical tape and IV tubes.
Holly was too young understand Santa Claus. I didn’t have to explain Santa delivers gifts to hospitals on Christmas Eve. I wrote a letter beforehand answering any questions if she was old enough to ask them. She might ask, “If I’m not allowed to have a Christmas tree in ICU, where does Santa put the presents?” I wrote, “He delivers them to the doctors and nurses and mommies and daddies to bring them to you.” Or she might ask, “Hospitals don’t have chimneys, how does he get in?” I wrote, “The nice workers let him in through the front doors.”
But no need to explain. The night before the surgery to insert a pacemaker, her little heart started beating on her own. The nurses checked and rechecked the long strips of paper that printed out the rhythm of her heart beats. Doctors upon doctors came into her room looking at the monitors, then at her, then at us. They all said the same thing: “We didn’t expect this.”
Within a day, Holly sat up, dancing in her seat to Disney cartoons. We left the hospital on Christmas Eve. I held her while a nurse wheeled us out. formerly robbed of that privilege after her birth since Holly stayed in neonatal ICU. When Holly saw the sunlight as the doors opened, she smiled, giggled and clapped like she just found her favorite toy.
There were dark circles under her eyes as we unwrapped presents by the tree that night. Her hazel eyes lit up as she saw the orange teddy bear named Ojo from the TV show Bear in the Big Blue House. Today, as a ten-year-old, she wants nothing to do with that bear but I keep it up on my dresser, ready with a patch and thread if it ever needs them.