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Enduring surgery like a rock star

Posted on 23/02/2009 12:00am

Only two weeks after open-heart surgery, Kevin Gagnon, with parents Darryl and Amy, is ready to rock.

By Ryan Starr - Cloverdale Reporter

Kevin Gagnon is a bit shy.

But when dad fires up Rock Band on the Nintendo Wii, and the seven-year-old gets behind the drum kit to tear into a tune by Nine Inch Nails or The Strokes, all Kevin's inhibitions seem to melt away.

Watching the young man pound away on the skins, you'd never guess that only two weeks earlier he had open-heart surgery to replace a faulty aortic valve - his second heart surgery in the past six months.

Amid it all - the waiting, the surgeries, the recovery - it turns out there was one constant that helped Kevin cope: Rock Band.

"He's insane about Rock Band," says his mother Amy. "In the ICU he'd be drumming in his sleep."

Kevin was born with an aortic valve deficiency, meaning the leaflets of the valve didn't close completely.

"Instead of blood getting pumped down, it would get sucked back in," his dad, Darryl, explains. "So his heart had to work harder and it got bigger."

The condition gradually worsened and doctors decided Kevin required surgery.

Getting him to the operating room table would prove a daunting task, though.

Kevin was originally scheduled to undergo surgery at BC Children's Hospital in July 2008, but it was cancelled due to a shortage of ICU nurses.

The surgery was pushed forward to September.

On the day of, Kevin was "wrapped and ready," Amy says, with gown on and freezing in his arm, awaiting the IV.

At the last minute, the family was informed there had been a bad car accident and the hospital needed Kevin's bed.

Finally, 11 days later, Kevin had the surgery, a temporary fix of his faulty valve.

He bounced back quickly.

"They had him off the ventilator before we even got to see him," Amy says.

Within a month, however, a check-up revealed Kevin's condition had not improved - it had grown more severe. He would now require a full valve replacement.

Kevin was on a waiting list behind 70 other patients, but his worsening condition got him bumped to the top.

As they prepared for the second surgery, the Gagnon family turned to the one thing they knew would buoy their spirits. "We had a last Rockband tournament," Amy says.

On Feb. 4, Kevin underwent an eight-hour procedure to replace the faulty valve with a pig valve.

A second surgery followed the next day.

Kevin suffered a few minor complications and lost a large amount of blood, requiring two transfusions.

But four days later he was home, and, true to form, is recovering like a rock star.

"We've only been home for a few days and he's up and kicking around," says Darryl. "You really have to keep him down - he wants to do handstands."

Once his sternum heals, in about six weeks, Kevin can return to Grade 2 at George Greenaway Elementary.

Not that he's all that eager to do so. "I don't miss school, because I don't like to do homework," he says.

As Kevin recovers, doctors have encouraged mild exercise. Re-enter Rock Band.

"It's the perfect exercise," Darryl says. "They want him to get his heart going but they don't want him sweating."

Kevin's parents are clearly impressed with the courage their son has shown throughout this ordeal.

"He's the best patient," says Amy. "There were all these doctors in there poking and prodding him. And he just sat there and took it."

"He's a trooper," Darryl adds.

In the living room of the family's Cloverdale home earlier this week, Amy lifted up Kevin's shirt to show off his impressive battle scars.

A visitor asks him how he remained so brave during his scary surgery.

"I've already done it once," Kevin says matter-of-factly, before grabbing his sticks, spinning around on his drum stool and returning to more important matters: rocking out.

newsroom@cloverdalereporter.com