By Carol Wallace
Divine Intervention – Prelude to the Story
Miracles happen each day of our lives, but we do not often stop to take notice of the “little” miracles. Each breath we take is a miracle from God, but we do not stop to take notice! This story is about a God-given “take notice” miracle to our grandson, Gaige, and certainly one that we continue to give thanks and praise to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
This is a story I cannot share without becoming emotional, but from Nana’s heart, I want to shout this miraculous story to the world and give glory to the mighty God we serve! When drafting this story, I decided to relay the events from Gaige’s viewpoint. I could never begin to know his feelings and thoughts completely as he traveled on this journey, but Gaige has read and given permission to share his story with you. God is in the details of our lives; He hears our prayers and gives answers according to His will. Thank you, again, Lord Jesus, for divine intervention in this “take notice” miracle for our beloved Gaige.
The doctor says, “It’s Time for Intervention.”
Depending on circumstances, the word “intervention” can sometimes create havoc in one’s life. I was born with aortic valve stenosis, which is a narrowing of the heart’s aortic valve. Left untreated aortic stenosis can be fatal. In addition to the stenosis, I have leakage in another heart valve. Regular visits to a cardiologist for EKGs and echocardiograms have been a routine part of my life, with the underlying expectation of the doctor announcing the necessity of surgery.
Aortic stenosis has imposed limitations on my life regarding strenuous activities. Contact sports have always been out of the question. My cardiologist explained a direct hit to the chest could result in death and contact sports increase this possibility. Normal activities with friends in a simple noncompetitive arena were permitted, allowing me to play at my own speed and stop when I became tired. Organized physical education classes were not permitted resulting in the requirement of receiving PE credit for high school graduation through the Niswonger Foundation Learning Center Online in Greeneville, TN.
When meeting new people or seeing people not interactive with my everyday life, the first question usually ask is “Do you play sports?” Each encounter required a brief explanation of my heart condition and the limits of my athletic activities. Not a fun thing for a teenager to explain over and over!
Intervention first came in 2014 at age 13 when Dr. Ashok Mehta, my pediatric cardiology specialist in Johnson City, TN spoke frankly to my mom in stating he wanted to send my records to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, TN for a consultation regarding a balloon catheter procedure on my heart. A balloon catheter is a type of soft catheter with an inflatable balloon at its tip used to enlarge a narrow passage within the heart, in this case, my aortic valve. The deflated balloon catheter is fed through the groin area to the heart, positioned, then inflated to perform the necessary procedure, and deflated again to be removed.
My Mom has always been my advocate in researching the best treatment, facility, and doctors and doing everything possible in my best interest regarding this life-long concern of aortic stenosis. The trip to Vanderbilt was her focus as she began to educate herself and me each step of the way. With tremendous prayer support at home, Mom, Nana, and I, chauffeured by my Great Uncle Chris and Great Aunt Kathie, departed for Nashville.
Upon arrival, Dr. Dana Janssen, a Pediatric Cardiologist at Vanderbilt, walked us through the planned procedure. A huge concern in this procedure was the size of the balloon catheter; too large and the leak in my heart valve could be worse and cause additional problems; too small and the inflated balloon would not help the narrowing issue in the aortic valve.
Seeking God’s guidance, protection, and will in treatment has always been a priority. My family prayed the surgeon would be a man of God. The Lord answered our prayers! Dr. Janssen held my hand and prayed with me, Mom, and my Nana before surgery. He told us he always prayed before surgery.
We knew God was in control and His assurance came in the first words of Dr. Jennson’s prayer. The morning of the surgery, Nana woke me up singing a hymn “This is the Day the Lord Has Made I will Rejoice and be Glad in it,” based on Psalm 118:24. The first words of Dr. Jenssen’s prayer were “Lord, this is the day you have made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
The balloon catheter procedure was successful in opening the narrowing in the aortic valve giving me four years before open heart surgery became reality.
In 2017, the echocardiogram began to show the stenosis was increasing and visits to the cardiologist became more frequent. In discussions with Dr. Mehta, it was evident surgery was on the horizon during the summer break of 2018. Mom began to research surgeons and facilities. Dr. Mehta assured her the records could be forwarded to any hospital she requested. Cleveland Clinic in Ohio was the hospital of choice. Phone calls, emails, video conferences, online research, and much prayer led to this decision.
Surgical options were researched and discussed with Dr. Mehta and Cleveland Clinic doctors. In the end, the Ross procedure was the best option for my situation. The Ross procedure (or pulmonary autograft) is a cardiac surgery operation where a diseased aortic valve is replaced with the person’s own pulmonary valve. A pulmonary allograft (valve taken from a cadaver) is then used to replace the patient’s own pulmonary valve. After opening the heart, if the Ross procedure does not appear to be the best option, we were informed a mechanical heart valve might be necessary.
Needless to say, my family was concerned about what I would be facing. Family, friends, church family, and total strangers heard about my pending surgery and began to pray. Word spread and many people we did not know were praying for me. My Papaw anointed me with oil and he, along with two of my great uncles, prayed over me asking God to guide the surgeons and to give me the best possible results from surgery. This journey was truly covered in prayer. Mom continued to answer my questions to the best of her ability and encouraged me to address my concerns to medical professionals. Overall, I was calm and would often say, “My Mom and Nana are more nervous than I am!”
I went about my life as normal and took a planned vacation with friends to Disney World in Florida the week before our scheduled trip to Cleveland. Our extended family of about forty-five people gathered at my grandparent’s to celebrate Independence Day early, as we were scheduled to fly to Cleveland on July 4th. Independence Day is a big celebration in our family with Papaw cooking burgers and hotdogs, swimming, corn hole, and fireworks. It was special to me that my family celebrated early so I could participate. Mom invited some of my friends to join us at the celebration. Vacation and holiday celebrations were temporary diversions, but the day of departure arrived and Mom, Nana, and I boarded the plane for Cleveland.
Arriving in Cleveland on the evening of July 4th, we checked in to the InterContinental Hotel adjacent to Cleveland Clinic adjoined by a skywalk. The walk would enable Mom and Nana to go back and forth to the hospital without having to leave the facility. We settled in and set about orienting ourselves to where we should be the next morning for preliminary testing and instructions for scheduled surgery on Friday, July 6th.
Thursday morning dawned and we made our way to the clinic for a scheduled EKG, echocardiogram, consultation with doctors, and preliminary preparations. Dr. Gosta Petterssen, one of the two scheduled surgeons, met with us reviewed my history, and explained again the planned Ross procedure. In the conversation, he also explained that should the operation be in progress and findings not be as expected, there was a possibility of a mechanical valve being the option. He explained there should always be a backup plan. In the back of our minds, we knew this, but when facts are laid on the table, the actual words can bring unpleasant thoughts and questions about the long-term effects.
Dr. Gosta Petterssen and Dr. Robert Stewart were the two doctors Mom had prayed for during her research. When Cleveland first contacted Mom regarding the surgical team, Dr. Petterssen was not on the original list. My Nana told Mom to give it time, God may work it out just as you have asked. Work it out He did! Dr. Pettersen’s schedule cleared, and he was assigned to my surgery team. Dr. Petterssen is a heart valve repair specialist as well as a Ross procedure specialist! God is so good!
We returned to the hotel on Thursday evening to spend time together, pray, and rest. Mom let me order anything I wanted from the dinner menu and my choice was a delicious filet! Food would be scarce for the next couple of days.
Friday, July 6th, the day of “intervention” had arrived! Dr. Robert Stewart did not meet with us until the morning of the surgery. He quickly reviewed the process, explained what to expect, and asked if I had any questions. I had one … “Could I get pictures or a video?” He said, “Gaige, I don’t think we can get a video, but pictures, yes, even if I have to take them with my cell phone.” We all enjoyed a good laugh! After Dr. Stewart’s visit, nurses, anesthesiologist, and each surgical team member assured me and my family that this procedure was their top priority.
The moment arrived as Mom and Nana escorted me to the OR doors, smiling, holding back the tears, and encouraging me along the way. My Nana whispered, “be strong and courageous.” My family has encouraged me with scripture all my life and the Bible verse in Joshua 1:9 was one I had memorized when I was younger and had been a source of comfort. “Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you, He will never leave you or forsake you.”
The next time I was aware, I was in the ICU with tubes, wires, and an anxious Mom and Nana at my bedside. It would be a couple of days before I understood the details of what had happened. Doctors and nurses were in and out and I could remember bits and pieces of conversation. I was vaguely aware that the Ross procedure had not been the surgical route completed, but I did not fully understand what had happened.
Mom told me when I was more alert about the valve repair and the sharing of good news with family and friends at home. So much rejoicing and happy tears. Text, phone calls, and emails were flying, and praise was abundant! Repair of my aortic valve had not been a part of the pre-op discussions. God is amazing!!!
The next day, Dr. Kenneth Zahka, a consultant cardiologist came by my room. Mom had talked with him by phone several times during pre-op consultation and he was a personal friend of my local cardiologist, Dr. Mehta. He spread his arms, smiled, and said, “Gaige, this is fantastic!”
My surgeons, Dr. Petterson and Dr. Stewart had explained in detail to my mom that the repair of the aortic valve had been possible. Dr. Stewart said, “Gaige, in most cases with aortic stenosis, the valve looks like chewed-up beef jerky! This was not the case with you. We were able to trim the stenosis, reattach the valve, and go forward.” The procedure that we expected to last eight-plus hours was completed in less than three hours with totally different end results. Dr. Stewart laughed and said, “Gaige, things changed so quickly that I did not have time to pull out my cell phone, but we do have a camera in the OR and I will see what I can do about pictures!”
Slowly, tubes and needle ports came out one by one and medication became less! The surgery was on Friday and Monday, I was released to return to the hotel. Some of the hospital staff were amazed I was released so soon. It was great to be out of the hospital even in a hotel room! My great Uncle Richard and great Aunt Rhonda drove up from Tennessee on Monday to spend a couple of days. We picked up food and had a brief picnic outside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the shore of Lake Erie. It was a small outing, and I was tired, but it was such a good mental break! A couple of my friends visiting family in Akron drove to Cleveland for a short visit. Mom arranged for us to take in a movie to help pass the time. Seeing family and friends and being outside did wonders to lift my spirits.
It was necessary to remain in Cleveland to revisit the hospital in three days. Thursday arrived and we returned to have a chest x-ray and, in the words of the doctor, “a beautiful picture.” We learned more about the surgical procedure in that the sternum was wired together and the wire would eventually be absorbed into the bone as it healed; stitches inside would dissolve, and the incision was glued. Amazing technology!
Follow-up care was reviewed carefully revealing driving restrictions for six weeks and, during this time, I was required to ride in the back seat of vehicles to avoid possible injury from airbags. No lifting more than the weight of a gallon of milk. Coughing and sneezing would be uncomfortable for a while. No running or strenuous activity. School started on August 6th, so no heavy book bags for a few weeks.
These restrictions were a bit tough for a teen who had been driving to school, working a part-time job, going to the gym, and doing normal activities. A small price to pay to have all my own heart parts and be the recipient of a true miracle.
We arrived back in Tennessee on Thursday, July 12th; less than one week from surgery. Home never looked so good! Friends and family came by to see me, and smiles were abundant. A follow-up visit with Dr. Mehta on July 17th was encouraging. He was thrilled and said, “Gaige, it is a miracle! It is the best of the best of the best!” He had been in phone consultation with Cleveland surgeons.
When school started, an unexpected side effect of the surgery involved my vocal cords and my ability to sing. I had been involved in school chorus and drama all during high school. During my recovery period, the time came to audition for the East Tennessee Chorus and my voice was not strong enough to qualify. This was concerning as auditions were approaching for a musical scholarship for entering East Tennessee State University in the fall of 2019. Once again, God blessed me with Mom securing a voice coach to help me regain vocal strength and qualify for a music scholarship for college and to qualify for East Tennessee Chorus the second time around. With my voice stronger, I was able to make a joyful noise! He is always in the details of our lives!
Continued follow-up with a cardiologist will always be necessary and future procedures are possibilities. However, at the age of seventeen having the valve repair leaves the door open for other options in the future. Also, medical technology changes continuously. It is obvious, that my heart’s desire would be for this surgery to last my lifetime, but that is in God’s hands.
This story of my “take notice” miracle started with the words “time for intervention.” I know I was the recipient of “divine intervention.” God has blessed me with a loving Mom who did extensive research, skilled surgeons, state of the art facility and equipment with invaluable help along the way from friends and family, but the greatest provision was answered prayer. God had given us a miracle! We had prayed for a miracle in that the surgery would not be necessary, but God gave us His miracle and gave us exceedingly more than we could ask or imagine!
Why are we surprised when our faithful Father, our marvelous Savior, and our Creator answer our prayers beyond what we can ask or imagine?
By the way, Dr. Stewart did provide pictures! To God be the glory!
My husband, Larry and I reside in Kingsport, TN and we recently joined the fellowship of Buffalo Ridge Baptist Church in Gray, TN. We grew up in Fall Branch, TN and were both saved at a young age. We have two children, Jonathan, and Kala, and one grandson, Gaige. I am a retired Administrative Assistant and have enjoyed serving in various Children and Ladies’ Ministries through the years.
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