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Angels Among Us

Surrounded by nurses and a chaplain, Jeff Kezar waited outside an operating room at Sanford Hospital. It’s the middle of the night -- June 6, 2010.

Minutes earlier he’d witnessed the unthinkable: his 6-pound newborn son in respiratory failure, his wife in cardiac arrest being resuscitated by a team of doctors.

“I walked out of the OR completely numb,” recalls Jeff. “All I could see was black, except for one sliver of light.”

Jeff tried to piece together what had happened -- the early labor, the late-night drive from their home in Thief River Falls, Minn., to Fargo, the Sanford team waiting for them.

He and his wife Beth Sheehan knew the delivery would be C-section. And for months they’d known:

    * Their baby would have Down syndrome -- a genetic disorder.
    * Surgery would be needed to resolve heart defects common with Downs.

Two lives in the balance

Before sunrise, Jeff received two reports:

    * Baby Oliver had stabilized. Close monitoring would continue in Sanford Children’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, where neonatologists stayed in close contact with pediatric heart surgeons. Sanford LifeFlight was on standby.
    * Beth had been transferred to Sanford’s Cardiac Intensive Care Unit. Her heart resumed beating, but she was on life support.

“ I thought about our two kids -- Oliver and 3-year-old Piper. What would they do without a mom?” says Jeff.

At 8 a.m., Jeff tried to relax in a nearby family room. He received a page to return to the unit immediately.

“Dr. Kouba met me, saying Beth had woken up and was doing remarkably well. They had a pretty good idea what had happened with her heart, but tests would tell more,” says Jeff. Dr Craig Kouba is a cardiologist at Sanford.

Jeff stepped into her room, amazed at what he saw: Beth sitting up, smiling, talking. She was unaware of what had happened.

“We talked a lot about Oliver, and the doctor talked a lot about Beth’s heart,” says Jeff. “Just an awful lot of stuff went on that morning.”

Beth could picture where Oliver was because of a NICU tour she’d taken months earlier. “I knew he was in a nice, calm setting with people who cared,” she says. “That comforted me.”

Tests later that day confirmed Beth had peripartum cardiomyopathy -- a relatively rare condition that typically presents near delivery or after. For reasons unknown, the heart loses full pumping capacity.

Beth also had a blood clot. Either condition could have caused cardiac arrest. Prompt diagnosis, treatment and close monitoring led to her full recovery.

Oliver’s heart

For months before and after Oliver’s birth, Sanford pediatric cardiologist Dr. Matthew Trefz closely followed his heart condition. Fetal echocardiograms were key.

In November 2010, Oliver reached 10 pounds -- big enough for his first heart surgery. Pediatric heart surgeons working in close collaboration with Dr. Trefz performed the successful six-hour surgery.

Oliver returned home, but two weeks later encountered a severe respiratory virus. A 20-minute flight on a Sanford jet rushed him to Sanford Children’s Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. The PICU had specialized breathing equipment to help relieve symptoms.

“It’s scary to see your child struggle to breathe. Even so, we felt at home at Sanford,” says Beth. “This was the place that saved our lives.”

Jeff made an unusual discovery during Oliver’s hospital stay. It happened in the cafeteria while he was having lunch.

“A nurse came up and said you don’t know me, but I was in the OR when Oliver was born. Then she asked if she could tell me a story,” recalls Jeff, his voice quivering. “She said a bunch of us nurses left that night not knowing what happened with Beth. She said they all got together and prayed that she hadn’t passed away.”

Fall in love with Oliver

Wearing a T-shirt that reads “Playdate? Text me,” Oliver today extends his hand, eager to meet a new person. Already he’s surpassed expectations -- talking, growing, eating, playing. At-home therapy and more have boosted his development.

“He’s silly and goofy and always happy,” says Beth. “He brings a light wherever he goes.”

Jeff and Beth believe the sky is the limit for Oliver and they’ll help him in whatever way they can. Others believe it, too. Friends have already introduced him to hockey.

“Oliver is so full of love,” says Jeff. “In this world that goes so fast, he’s the one who just wants to visit. Even as an infant, he was very responsive and instantly connected with people. It’s something to experience.”

So where does this uncanny gift come from? Is it the extra chromosome? The extra attention? Something more?

Beth pauses a moment, then recalls the words on a baby blanket Oliver received shortly after he was born: “Thank you for bringing an angel.”

Joy to the world!

Posted Date: December 2011