Grateful hearts: Children thrive after operations at young ages

Sunday, February 21, 2016
Susan Smithson and Beth Thomas hold hands as the emotions flow while talking about their children's heart operations. (T-G Photo by David Melson)

The images tell it all.

For Sarah Beth Thomas, it's that of a Cascade High School softball star bound for Martin Methodist College next fall on an athletic scholarship.

Susan Smithson, left, with her 21-month-old son Drew, and Sarah Beth Thomas at last Friday's Pink-Out at Cascade High School. The event raised funds for the American Heart Association. Drew and Sarah Beth have undergone heart operations. (T-G Photo by Chris Siers)

For Drew Smithson, it's a photo of a smiling 21-month-old boy appearing as if he's ready to take on the world.

But there's a back story -- one of fears, love, operations, support -- that got them and their parents, Andy and Susan Smithson and Dean and Beth Thomas, to this point.

Both have had childhood heart problems. Sarah Beth proves that there's a rich life ahead for young patients. Drew can expect what's likely to be a healthy, if somewhat restricted, childhood.

"Drew had surgery when he was 2 days old for tetralogy of fallot," his mother, Cascade High teacher Susan Smithson said.

"Tetralogy of fallot is a heart defect that features four problems," the American Heart Association's web site says. "They are a hole between the lower chambers of the heart; an obstruction from the heart to the lungs; the aorta (blood vessel) lies over the hole in the lower chambers; the muscle surrounding the lower right chamber becomes overly thickened."

"A tetralogy baby is 1 in 10,000," Smithson said. "The chance of a baby being born with a heart defect is 1 in 100. It kills more people than cancer."

Sarah Beth had atrial septal and vetricular septal defects -- holes in the walls that separate the top two and lower two chambers of the heart.

"In normal development, the wall between the chambers closes before the fetus is born, so that by birth, oxygen-rich blood is kept from mixing with the oxygen-poor blood. When the hole does not close, it may cause higher pressure in the heart or reduced oxygen to the body," the ADA website says.

Sarah Beth also had to have a valve replaced, said her mother, Cascade teacher Beth Thomas.

"I didn't find out until she was born. Technology has changed so much in the past 17 to 18 years." Beth said. Doctors had detected a problem but were unsure of its nature.

"She had a gray color and was lethargic. I was sent to a cardiologist, then we had to wait until she got stronger."

Sarah Beth's operation took place when she was 3 months old, after a wait until she gained strength.

Today Sarah Beth has been declared "clean" by doctors. "She no longer has to have checkups," Beth said.

"Drew will have to have checkups once a year for the rest of his life or until he's told he doesn't have to have them," Susan said.

But the effects remain. For Sarah Beth it's appreciation for being alive and a permanent "reminder."

"I'm very, very thankful," Sarah Beth said. "I say my prayer every night to thank God that I'm here. I have a constant reminder -- because of that scar I'm here."

"Sarah Beth's surgery was on a Wednesday...like today (day of the interview)," Beth said. "I always say a prayer every Wednesday because someone else is going through what we did."

"I handle it through faith," Susan said, as Beth nodded in agreement. "I'm on a Facebook group for parents of children with heart problems. It's been great.

"Facebook didn't exist when I was born," Sarah Beth said. Beth is also a member of the group.

Both youths were operated on by Dr. Carla Christian at Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt.

"Vanderbilt has been awesome. They're so supportive," Susan said.

The process of finding out their children had heart problems was different -- and heart-wrenching -- for both mothers.

"I found out when I was 23 weeks pregnant," Susan said. "I was an emotional mess. Beth helped me a lot."

"I remember me calling me in and doing a genetic test," Beth said. "They saw something and thought it was Down syndrome. Technology wasn't to the level that it is now. They found it wasn't Down syndrome but weren't sure what it was."

"At 23 weeks they did an ultrasound and the doctor said there were choices. 'You can have an abortion but at this point there's only one doctor, in Kansas, that will do it or you can go see a cardiologist at Vanderbilt.,' he said. Of course, we chose the cardiologist.

"It's a roller coaster...They tested to see if Drew had several syndromes, genetic flags, he had nothing. When he was born he looked perfect. I got to hold him before he was taken to NICU."

Susan keeps a photo in her cellphone of Drew in a hospital room covered w/tubes next to a later photo of him smiling and happy. The photo brings tears.

"I wanted to delete the picture but Andy told me to keep it because Drew will want to see it someday," she said.

Both youths were operated on by Dr. Carla Christian at Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt.

"Vanderbilt has been awesome. They're so supportive," Susan said.

Beth found comfort from a former student at Cascade.

"She had a child who had a hole in her heart," Beth said. "We talked a lot. Faith and prayer support gets you through it.

"The hardest thing was when I had to hand her over for surgery," Beth said as tears began to flow.

Both mothers held hands for a few moments over emotions relatively few can share. "I remember the waiting room...No one leaves. It's heartbreaking when one leaves because their child died."

"We had already had three other children with no problems. So what caused this?" Beth wonders. "It's important that they research this to find those cases."

Sarah Beth's activities were restricted as a child as she had anemia at one point and also underwent a few problems from other children over her scar.

"It was the curiosity of other kids sometimes when I was little," she said, noting the problem for the most part disappeared by the time she started high school.

"There were times she was frustrated as a child. She got tired before others did. She's had to build stamina," Beth said. "But it was a process -- at first very frustrating."

Dean and Beth told Sarah Beth she could choose one sport and she picked softball. She also got into horses through 4-H and was chosen to ride the flag horse before a University of Tennessee game at Neyland Stadium last fall.

But there was one scary moment.

"When she started playing softball -- she was a pitcher -- she was hit hard in the chest with a ball. She just froze. I went to pieces." Beth said. "We took her to the doctor and she was okay but she wore a chest protector for a long time after that."

Today, Susan and Beth are thoughtful about their journey.

"I wonder if God chose us for a reason?" Susan wonders.

"I'm a much stronger person than I used to be," Beth said. "I had already hoped that God would put me in a place to help someone."

And both mothers strongly support fundraising efforts by the American Heart Association.

"When the representative came to talk I questioned her about how much goes toward congenital heart defects. She said a lot of it goes toward research," Susan said.

She said $1,255 was raised at a "pink-out" fundraiser for the AHA at a recent Cascade High basketball night.

"We are so fortunate," Beth said. "Drew and Sarah Beth are on no medication. They're not sick and there are so many sick babies."

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