After welcoming a son into the world late in 2016, doctors gave Chris and his wife some heartbreaking news. When the baby was just one day old, they detected a heart defect and knew they had to act fast. But the family were thousands of miles from home, and the hospital lacked the necessary facilities to treat the child. So with time against them, the military launched a mammoth operation to return the baby home and save his life.
Chris is a Marine who was serving at MCAS Futenma in Japan. His son, Jackson, was delivered at the Okinawa Naval Hospital where his wife was also stationed as a nurse. Straight away, however, doctors knew there was something wrong.
Jackson wasn’t breathing as he should have been, so doctors immediately began running tests. First, they ruled out infections and respiratory distress. Subsequently, they sent his echocardiogram results to the nearest pediatric cardiologist – in Hawaii. Thankfully the specialist there knew what was wrong straight away.
Chris wrote on theCHIVE in February, “Jackson was born with a rare heart defect known as Transposition of the Great Arteries. [It’s] a heart defect where the pulmonary and aorta are switched and in the wrong position. This keeps oxygenated blood from getting to the rest of the body, it was only going between his heart and lungs.”
Although the condition is operable, it’s life threatening if left untreated. And despite the hospital Jackson was born in being well equipped, it lacked the specialists required to treat the defect. Without corrective surgery, doctors feared the baby would die.
The military authorities made plans to transfer Jackson to a specialist unit in San Diego, California, for a potentially life saving operation. The mission involved a team of Navy and USAF doctors and dedicated military transportation. It was the beginning of an epic race against time to save the baby.
“It was tough to hear our doctor tell us that our son needed surgery as soon as possible,” Chris wrote. “I immediately headed home and packed up four suitcases and rushed back to the hospital.” The U.S. Consulate issued Jackson a passport on the spot, and the family’s journey began first thing next day.
The U.S. Air Force chartered Jackson his very own KC-135. This particular model usually flies on aerial refueling missions. Medics sedated Jackson for the 11 hour flight and placed him in an incubator. A group of military staff then carefully loaded it onto the aircraft.
Three medical personnel accompanied the family on the flight. They were an Air Force doctor and nurse and a further Navy nurse. Perhaps reassuringly for mom, she had worked with the Navy nurse at a previous station, and the pair had already built up a friendship.
During the long flight, mom and dad helplessly watched the medical team in action. Dad later recalled, “They did amazing things on the flight to keep Jackson as stable as possible. For me and my wife, this was the longest 11 hours of our lives.”
For Chris’s wife, however, the agony would continue for three days after landing at San Diego’s Naval Air Station North Island. In need of medical care herself after giving birth, she was transferred to Balboa Naval Hospital. She had to say goodbye to her newborn baby, who was taken to Rady Children’s Hospital.
Upon arrival at Rady’s, Jackson’s health had deteriorated. The 11 hour flight and the altitude at which they had been flying had taken its toll on his fragile condition. Doctors immediately took Jackson to a specialist unit to undergo a procedure vital to save him.
Doctors performed an atrial septostomy on baby Jackson. Chris explained, “This procedure created a hole in his heart to help the mixing of oxygenated blood and unoxygenated blood. This was vital in helping him gain enough strength to endure the open heart surgery that would eventually fix his heart.”
Chris continued, “The surgical team on the cardiovascular ICU are amazing. They are some of the best in the country.” The pep talk he gave his son before he went in for surgery clearly worked. Jackson stayed strong, and the operation was a complete success.
Proud dad Chris wrote of his son, “He was a champ! He kicked ass and gave us a chance to breathe a little!” Jackson would remain in hospital for several weeks while he recovered. Despite gruesome after effects and a sketchy period, Jackson stayed strong.
For a while, as is standard after major operations on infants, Jackson had an open chest wound. But, with proper protections in place, it wasn’t long before he was awake and alert. Chris wrote, “It was crazy to see our son begin to wake up and look around while his chest was still open!”
In fact, before too long Jackson was showing signs of becoming a healthy baby. What’s more, with Jackson having spent his life up to this point being fed via tubes and IVs, Chris wrote, “He picked up bottle feeding his first try, no warm up! He was determined to break out of jail!”
Chris believes that Jackson had angels watching over him throughout his ordeal. Moreover, whether those angels were in the heavens, or simply came in the form of friends close by to lend a hand, they all contributed to Jackson’s strong recovery. He even has a real life protector in Goldendoodle Max.
“This is Jackson today,” Chris concluded. “He’s growing and doing normal baby things now, like sleeping, crying and pooping! He continues to see a pediatric cardiologist every couple of months just to make sure everything is OK, but his defect is fixed and should live a normal life.”
“I’m not one to post pictures but I wanted to share this,” Chris later wrote. Paying tribute to his colleagues in the military, he added, “If it wasn’t for the amazing Navy and Air Force doctors and nurses and the amazing medical staff at Rady’s, he wouldn’t be here. For that we will be forever thankful!”