It was the worst two weeks of my life.
On the afternoon of Dec. 4, 2012, I took my 3-week-old son, John, to the pediatrician for a routine weight check. John had the winter sniffles and had been sleepier than usual, so I was especially glad to be there. I was not particularly concerned, since there were no apparent signs of fever and I am a veteran mom of four kids. But that changed the moment the pediatrician saw him and suspected respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
Within minutes, we were in an ambulance bound for the nearest hospital. As they worked to stabilize him, everything felt surreal. Things got worse, and when they called for helicopter transport to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, I went numb. The thought of my tiny baby in a helicopter ripped through my core. After a flurry of activity and reassuring words from the flight crew, I saw the blades of “John’s” helicopter while my husband Tom and I rushed down I-75 from Marietta to Egleston. To this day, every time I see or hear a helicopter, my stomach drops.
Given his critical state, the transport crew brought John straight to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) upon arrival at Egleston. He had severe pneumonia and RSV, a fatal combination for tiny babies with no immunity. By 5 a.m., John was crashing and nothing appeared to make him much better. Until that day, the most serious kid trauma we’d experienced was a hairline fracture barely requiring a cast. And now we discussed extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), and heard phrases like “50/50 chance of survival.” We had barely gotten to know this baby, and now we were considering having to say goodbye?
After Dr. Matthew Paden told us ECMO was John’s best hope for survival, he crouched down to our level and gently explained what each piece of equipment did. He addressed all of our questions and, most importantly, talked to us like we were partners.
As my husband and I watched the nurses, doctors and techs at work, it was as if everyone had a silent coach on their shoulder chanting, “Be really, really careful with this baby.” They knew what they were doing; that part I expected. After all, it was Children’s. But what I didn’t expect was the overflowing compassion. With my husband’s family in Pennsylvania and my parents unreachable on a cruise ship, the staff embraced us like family. During the most hectic, emotional and chaotic hours, the doctors and nurses put us at ease. We’d had positive experiences in nursing homes and through labor and delivery, but we’d never before been made to feel so comfortable.
With John on ECMO, we knew it could be weeks until his little body was strong enough to function on its own—if ever again. But after six days, Fightin’ John had done it. We moved to the Techonology-Dependent Intensive Care Unit (TICU) —along with many wires and tubes—and waited for the day we could finally hold him again. I didn’t care if we made it home in time for Christmas; I just wanted my baby home some day.
On Dec. 12, the PICU staff removed his ventilator. I got to hold him for the first time in eight days. I was flooded with relief when he seemed to remember who I was.
Exactly two weeks after our journey began, we left Egleston and headed home. As John grew and passed developmental milestone after developmental milestone with ease, we never forgot about the people who cared for John—and us—during those two agonizing weeks. When our healthy baby boy turned 6 months old, we yearned to show the angels who had saved our son the results of their hard work. And on July 15, we did just that.
Healthcare professionals see gory stuff in school and perhaps every day in their careers. But for those of us in suburbia, these moments can turn into our worst nightmares. Whether it’s a dog attack, car accident or baby with a respiratory infection, medical professionals have front row seats to the worst days of many people’s lives. Everyone at Children’s—from Dr. Paden to nurse Natalie to the transport and ECMO teams—understood that. And thanks to them, my older sons, daughter, Tom and I lead lives brightened by the smile of our little Fightin’ John.
John is the son of Tom and Julie Gamull and has three siblings: Gus (5), Monica (3) and James (2) who love him very much.