Presidential Proclamation 3566, making February American Heart Month, was signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
Like all proclamations, it’s a long list of whereas this and whereas that until someone comes along to make the words mean something. Then, it hits home.
Her offer is still open, Dr. Marnie Baker says. If you ever want to talk — mother to mother — she’s available. Anytime, anyplace.
It’s been 10 years since your baby died and hers lived. She reached out to you as soon as she was allowed to make contact — a year after the heart transplant at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, but you never answered her letter.
She was disappointed, but she understood. The pain must have been unbearable for you. It certainly was for her and her husband, David Blakey, as they watched life slowly slip away from their own 8-month-old baby boy barely hanging on after 78 days in ICU on the transplant list.
Then, it happened. A baby somewhere in this country died and its healthy heart was on its way to their son.
Dr. Baker doesn’t want to open old wounds for you; she only wants to tell you that your baby’s heart still pounds strong inside her son, Mitchell, who’s turning 11 next month.
Maybe by telling her story now, during American Heart Month, she can help persuade other parents going through the same gut-wrenching pain of losing a child to make the same decision you did. Give life from death.
Dr. Baker, whose practice is in Irvine, has spent her 13-year career in pediatric care working to keep children safe and healthy, but a decade ago she was faced with a horrible irony.
“My whole passion about being a pediatrician is protecting kids, and now I had to somehow benefit from a terrible occurrence happening to somebody else’s child to save my own,” she says. “There was a lot of internal conflict.”
But this was her baby lying in the intensive care unit at Children’s Hospital growing weaker by the day, kept alive only by multiple IV drips to his failing heart.
She wasn’t thinking like a doctor now. She was a grieving mother, just like you. Then, your baby’s heart arrived, and her tears turned to muted joy.
Even now, a few weeks after taking her son out of school for a day trip to Universal Studios on his official 10th New Heart Day — his second birthday every year — she hesitates calling it a celebration.
“We always are respectful and think about the donor family,” she says. “I don’t want to sound ungrateful by saying we had a huge party and great celebration because there’s always that part of making sure you’re thinking about the family that sacrificed in order to save your own.
“I can’t even imagine what it feels like to sit on the donor side of our situation. Will it lessen the grief to know that your child is living on in another or is it still too painful to even bear? I think it’s highly individual for families.”
Would you want to know that your child’s heart now beats inside the body of a third-degree black belt in taekwando and Little League baseball player?
That he’s superactive with no physical restrictions, and doing great in school? That anytime you want to meet Mitchell and his mom, there’s an open invitation?
So, it’s not just a dry, long presidential proclamation we acknowledge this month, it’s a living testament to life. Heart disease may be the leading cause of death in the United States, but the same heart when healthy is the leading cause of life.
And organ donation is a major component of that. Dr. Baker knows the donor family could have said no when asked if they wanted to donate their deceased child’s organs so that another child could live.
But they said yes, and God bless them for that.
If you take one thing out of this story, Dr. Baker hopes it’s this. Don’t shy away from this subject because it’s too painful to even contemplate. It’s too important to ignore or leave to the last minute when emotions are running high.
“Families should have these conversations when everyone is healthy so that all the family members know each other’s wishes,” she says.
That should be the first whereas in Presidential Proclamation 3566.
Dennis McCarthy’s column runs on Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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