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Family gives thanks for Gabriel’s precious life

You would not know that three-year-old Gabriel Weaver has had three major heart surgeries since he was born. The energy he exhibits taxes his mother Vanessa Walker as she struggles to keep up with him. Not that Vanessa is complaining. She knows that Gabriel’s life is the greatest gift this Thanksgiving season.

“I am thankful for every day that I am blessed with both of my children. I am thankful they have each other [and] we have a home. I am thankful that I live in a country that gives us health care that he needs. I want him to grow up and I want to have those moments where he is driving me crazy,” said Walker.

The long journey began over three years ago when Vanessa was twenty weeks into her pregnancy. Gabriel was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect (CHD).

When the doctors delivered the news to Walker they gave her slim options for her unborn child.

“They realized his heart was under developed and he had an under developed left ventricle. I was sent to a specialist at Children’s Mercy Hospital at their Elizabeth Ferrell Fetal Health Center, where they confirmed the diagnosis,” said Walker.

The doctor explained to her that she had three options when it came to his congenital heart defect.

“They told me I could terminate the pregnancy, I could let him be born naturally and let nature take its course and let him go or I could risk surgical intervention. I knew that I didn’t want to give up. I chose the surgical intervention,” she said.

During the ensuing months of her pregnancy, Walker, and her partner Floyd Weaver, made the 100-mile drive to Kansas City every two to three weeks so the doctors could follow the baby’s progress.

As the due date approached, the doctors chose to induce her since she didn’t live in Kansas City. At the hospital’s Elizabeth Ferrell Fetal Health Center, they had a staff of doctors and nurses ready to take over once Gabriel was born to help his heart continue to beat.

“If they had not detected his heart defect during my pregnancy, I would have delivered him at a local hospital near my home. The crazy thing is that when he was born, he was crying, he was pink, he was a healthy birth weight. I would have brought him home from the hospital and he would have passed away because looking at him, he seemed fine,” she said.

He was placed on the Extra Corporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) machine. The machine allows the blood to bypass the heart and lungs, which allows them to rest and strengthen. The process removes the blood from the vein, adds oxygen and removes carbon dioxide, warms the blood and then returns the blood to the artery and is pumped through the body.

He was on the machine for three days. His recovery was going fine until they removed him from the machine.

“I didn’t realize how big a deal it was to remove him. I just thought he would come off of it and no problem,” she said.

The hospital called and told her to come to the hospital. When she arrived, a surgical nurse and a chaplain met her.

“They told me when they were taking him off the machine, some of the tissue tore and he was bleeding out. They couldn’t stop the bleeding. They said there was nothing they could do for him if they couldn’t stop the bleeding,” said Walker.

Her mind rushed as she tried to think what to do about Gabriel as a team of doctors and nurses worked to save him. Weaver was at work and was picking up their daughter, Sophia, after school. She knew if Gabriel took a turn for the worse his dad wouldn’t make it to Children’s Mercy in time.

She was given a glimmer of hope when a nurse told her they had stopped the bleeding. Gabriel seemed to stabilize and it looked as if he was doing better. Walker felt they were over the worst, but then they discovered that on Gabriel’s right side, his pulse was weak.

His health became critical once again and doctors said they would have to perform heart surgery and explore what was happening.

“I was told to prepare for the worst and get his dad and my family at the hospital right away. They told me he could code at any time and I had to make the decision on whether they should resuscitate him if he did. At one point, a surgeon told me that he didn’t think there was anything they could do for him even if they took him back into surgery. He told me this was it,” she recalled.

She faced the worst decision any mother or parents would have to decide—was it time to let him go.

“I was told I could stay in a room with him and bring in my family and we could sit with him until he passed away,” she recalled.

Pediatric Cardiologist Dr. Karina Carlson was on call that night. She heard about Gabriel’s situation and went to Walker. She told her she was willing to try to operate on her son but she would not promise her that she would have a successful outcome.

“I sat there and thought about it. I could hand my child over to a doctor who is willing to take a chance on him or let him go. We decided that we had come this far, we were not giving up now.”

Gabriel was five days old. It was New Year’s Eve. Walker put her trust in Carlson’s hands and turned to faith. She began to sing “Yahweh, I Know You Are Near.” She had sang the song multiple times in church, but this day one stanza in the song stood out.

“You know my heart and its ways, you who formed me before I was born. In the secret of darkness before I saw the sun in my mother’s womb.”
Upon reciting those words, Walker said a peace settled over her. “I didn’t see God and it is hard to describe, but I had a sense that God was standing beside me,” she said.

The operation was successful and the family has been grateful for the years that have come in between. Gabriel still faced other procedures including an operation in April and the most recent one in October called the Fontan.

“He needed two things done; an aorta arch reconstruction and they wanted to remove the stents and do a repair. The doctors said he was getting close to the age where they could do the two at the same time, but when they went in they discovered that they needed to do more work with the arch and they didn’t want to keep him under too long,” she said.

Gabriel is back home and keeps his mother on her toes, as he is an active little boy.

“He is very busy, loves to play with his sister. He lays on the floor and colors. He is always happy and smiling. He is doing well and doesn’t seem to have pain from his surgeries. If he does I think he just plays through the pain,” she said.

Walker wants to educate future mothers to be aware that children are born with CHD and many times it goes undetected. This is the best way that she can give thanks.

“I want to bring awareness to these children that have been born with CHD. These kids are strong, amazing and resilient. I want to open people’s eyes and make them more aware that their children could be born with this disease. I don’t want mothers to not know their child may have this,” she said.