We often hear words like “joy,” “blessing” and “good will” during the holidays. They are in our greeting cards and the songs of the season, but sometimes they become more than just words.
More than 3 weeks ago, a team of Akron Children’s cardiologists, anesthesiologists, critical care doctors and nurses learned a child’s life was on the line and rallied around him.
With so little of the usual planning involved in cases like this, the boy – a toddler from Haiti – received emergency heart surgery and, just this past weekend, has already reunited with his parents waiting for him back home.
Drs. Jeff and Ellen Kempf served as the legal guardians and surrogate parents for Bill-Kelf Bully (known as Kelf) during his treatment in Akron.
While the Kempfs have brought other Haitian children to Akron Children’s for heart surgery, this little boy’s journey was especially harrowing.
Kelf was identified in March with tetralogy of Fallot, a rare condition caused by a combination of 4 heart defects that affect the structure of the heart and cause oxygen-poor blood to flow out of the heart to the rest of the body.
They talked with Kelf’s parents about bringing him to Akron. As the Kempfs knew from the previous times they brought Haitian children to Akron for heart surgery, he would likely be granted a passport and visa in a timely manner, but his parents would not.
Akron Children’s doctors returned to St. Damien Pediatric Hospital in Port-au-Prince in September and again in November. The decline in Kelf’s health was dramatic.
“Unlike the typical 2 year old who is in constant motion, Kelf had so little blood flow through his body that he barely had the energy to walk, play or even to cry,” said Dr. (Ellen) Kempf. “He spent much of his time in a squatting position, an instinctive way for children with this condition to get blood flowing.”
Kelf’s oxygen saturation level was around 50 and would drop to 30 if he took a few steps. To put that into perspective, healthy people have a 100 percent oxygen level and are administered oxygen if it even drops to around 93 percent.
The team knew they had to get Kelf to Akron immediately. The work to get his travel documents and change of legal guardianship was expedited.
Kelf’s parents knew of the fine reputation of the American doctors and thanked them for offering to take their son. They had only one question before handing him over to them: “Do you pray?”
The flight to Akron was nerve-wrecking. The high altitude took an even harder toll on Kelf’s already struggling cardiovascular system. He had several fainting episodes called “tet spells” and turned blue in flight.
Even though he was surrounded by pediatric specialists, there was little they could do. He needed to get to the OR – and fast.
“When we arrived in Akron, everyone at Akron Children’s really stepped up,” said Dr. Kempf. “The timing was amazing. This was teamwork at its best.”
Kelf arrived in Akron on Nov. 16 and had his surgery on Nov. 20. The Rotary Club’s Gift of Life Program helped cover some of his medical costs.
“In the United States, kids with tetralogy of Fallot are typically identified before birth or shortly after birth and surgery is scheduled within a few months,” said Dr. Kempf. “It was eye-opening for our cardiologists to see a child who had lived with this condition for nearly three years without surgery. They just don’t see kids this far advanced.”
The Akron Children’s medical team took unique steps in response to Kelf’s fragile medical state.
For example, no blood was drawn until he was intubated (breathing is mechanically assisted) and the anesthesiologists approached their work with “kid gloves” knowing any anxiety on Kelf’s part could compromise his health even more.
After the surgery, Kelf was a totally different child.
“He began playing. He got into my cupboards. He’s gained 3 lbs. He started saying ‘no’ to me – just like any 2 year old,” said Dr. Kempf, with a laugh. “But, the better he felt, the more he missed his mom. He had a speedy recovery and was ready to go home.”
Doctors expect Kelf to live a full and productive life.
Photos courtesy of Ted Stevens.