Elizabeth Van de Polder felt a sense of joy and relief when she finally got to hold her baby boy Kelso for the first time without any wires or tubes attached to his tiny body.
“Whenever I held him I had to be right beside his bed because he was hooked up to all these monitors,” she recalls. “But now I can just pick him up and take him over to my bed and hold him and feel normal.”
On a sunny May afternoon, Elizabeth is sitting in a comfy chair inside the living room of her South Surrey home, with Kelso sleeping peacefully in her arms.
It was a tumultuous first-week-and-a-half of life for Kelso and his young parents.
Kelso was born on April 16, 2015, at 6:12 pm. The next morning, as his parents prepared to take him home to meet his older sister Zoey, a nurse detected an unusual heart murmur.
Kelso was sent to BC Children’s Hospital for testing and later diagnosed with a rare heart defect that required surgery.
“It was very scary,” says Elizabeth.
Kelso was only six days old when he underwent a delicate four-hour operation to fix his heart.
After watching their baby disappear into the operating room at BC Children’s Hospital, Elizabeth and her husband Steven clung to each other, and to a sense of hope.
They knew Kelso was in good hands.
Every year, the talented and highly trained team of cardiovascular surgeons at the hospital’s Children’s Heart Centre perform more than 300 operations on infants and children suffering from a variety of congenital and acquired heart defects.
The team is led by surgeon Dr. Sanjiv Gandhi, who, since joining BC Children’s in 2010, has played a key role in expanding the Children’s Heart Centre’s programs and enhancing its reputation as a top surgical centre.
Dr. Gandhi explains that Kelso’s condition is known as aortico-left ventricular tunnel, and it’s incredibly unusual. In his 20 years as a surgeon, Dr. Gandhi has only encountered three similar cases.
“[It is a heart defect] in which there is a connection between the aorta, which is the blood vessel that provides blood to the body, and the left ventricle, which is the main pumping chamber of the heart,” he explains.
Surgery was the only option to correct the defect.
A baby’s heart is just a little larger than a walnut, so operating on an infant versus, say, a 10-year-old child, presents added challenges for the surgery team. Aside from the most obvious difference – size – Dr. Gandhi explains the other differences have to do with the heart itself.
“The heart muscle, being much more immature, and hence delicate, in infancy, doesn’t tolerate stress very well – so you have to execute operations with perfection; if you don’t, the outcomes won’t be great.”
The Children’s Heart Centre is one of two designated surgical centres in the Western Canadian Children’s Heart Network and it cares for sick young patients from across Western Canada.
“It’s becoming a very well-known place; we care for the full range of complex congenital heart conditions, all the way from infancy to adulthood,” says Dr. Gandhi. “The people that are here are tremendously knowledgeable in all facets of pediatric heart disease.”
When the Van de Polders met Dr. Gandhi for the first time, they found the surgeon’s manner both positive and reassuring.
“It made us confident,” says Steven.
Dr. Gandhi understands the emotional adversity parents face after receiving a jarring diagnosis like this and he tries to connect with them as parents – to build a trust beyond the typical surgeon-to-patient relationship.
“To realize the stress that they are experiencing has everything to do with the fact that we’re talking about their children…the most precious things in parents’ lives,” says Dr. Gandhi. “And to establish some sort of confidence with them – that they are confident that the person who’s been entrusted to fix their child’s heart knows what he’s doing and is going to return their kid back in better shape than when they came.”
After Kelso went in for surgery, the Van de Polders received a beeper that would go off when the operation was finished. To take their minds off the surgery, the anxious couple walked around nearby Queen Elizabeth Park, hand-in-hand.
“We knew it was happening and there was no point to bring it up,” recalls Steven.
Hours later, they returned to a waiting room for parents inside the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit when the device started beeping.
Dr. Gandhi soon arrived to deliver the news: the operation to fix Kelso’s heart was a success.
“My heart started pumping again. You can’t explain [the feeling],” says Elizabeth.
Three days later a healthy Kelso was back at home with his parents and sister.
“The [heart] murmur is gone,” says Elizabeth, running her fingers through her sleeping baby’s hair.
“The best part about my job is when kids go home in great shape and live happy and normal lives, like Kelso,” says Dr. Gandhi.
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