One Tough Family

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Nancy Chapman

With his wife and newborn both in critical condition, Chris Vail literally didn’t know which way to turn.

HaydenVailNeonatologist Brett Siegfried and his team stood ready in a delivery room at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital. Their task: stabilize a baby boy so he could be rushed across the connecting hallway to the NICU at Children’s Hospital.

Andrea and Christopher Vail, also in the delivery room, weren’t quite as ready. But after three days of unsuccessful treatment to stop Andrea’s premature labor, the couple had come to accept that their second son, Hayden, was arriving nine weeks early.

Right after the delivery, Dr. Siegfried’s four-member team intubated the baby and placed him on a ventilator. As a NICU nurse and respiratory therapist settled him into an incubator for the quick trip to CHKD, Andrea suddenly went into respiratory failure.

Chris followed, stunned and disoriented, as his wife was raced into intensive care. When the specialists explained that he couldn’t be at her bedside while they worked, he hurried to CHKD to check on his son.

“The NICU doctors told me that a large fluid build-up was blocking their view of Hayden’s abdominal organs on the X-rays,” Chris remembers. “They couldn’t see if he had them all, and they weren’t sure he was going to make it.”

It was with this heartbreaking news that he went back to check on Andrea, only to learn she’d just been given a 50-50 chance of surviving.

“We said our goodbyes in case she didn’t make it,” Chris remembers, his voice cracking, his eyes welling up.

With both his wife and newborn critically ill, Chris called his parents in Massachusetts. They drove through a blizzard to be with their son and his young family. A close friend of the Vails would continue taking care of their toddler, Connor, for as long as necessary.

Back in the NICU, Dr. Siegfried spoke with Chris again about Hayden’s X-rays. “It looked like a water balloon was pushing Hayden’s intestines into one corner of his abdominal cavity,” Dr. Siegfried remembers. And there was more bad news. Hayden was born with cytomegalovirus, a serious infection that can cause hearing and vision loss in newborns.

On day two, as Andrea remained on the ventilator, things got worse in the NICU. The NICU team discovered that a section of Hayden’s intestine was perforated.

Enter CHKD pediatric surgeon Michael Goretsky, who rushed Hayden into surgery to examine the intestine and repair the perforation. He would also drain the fluid in the abdomen and evaluate the abdominal organs directly.

But before the operation started, Chris said his second tearful goodbye, this one to the son he had just met.

HaydenVail3During surgery, Dr. Goretsky learned why they couldn’t see Hayden’s organs on the X-rays: Hayden had a cyst on his liver the size of a softball. The cyst turned out to be a hemangioma, a benign tumor composed of blood vessels. Hemangiomas in the skin often cause birthmarks in newborns, but they can also occur internally. Between removing the hemangioma and fluid, Hayden’s weight dropped by a full pound after the operation. Hemangiomas can grow rapidly during a baby’s first year,” Dr. Siegfried explains. “This was a ticking time bomb inside Hayden.” The surgery took three hours. An operating-room nurse phoned Chris in the waiting room every hour with an update, and a NICU nurse made calls to check on Andrea’s condition. “When Dr. Goretsky told me that the cyst had been removed and Hayden had all of his vital organs,” Chris says, “it was the best news I’d had in days.”

Hayden’s third day of life brought more good news. Andrea was taken off the ventilator. Now Chris could wheel his wife into the NICU and introduce her to their son. “He was too fragile for me to pick up,” Andrea recalls, “but I was finally able to hold his tiny hand.”

At only four days old, Hayden was recovering from major surgery while battling a formidable infection. Still, his condition was far better than if he hadn’t had swift access to a skilled pediatric surgeon and neonatology team. Having a full range of pediatric medical and surgical specialists on-site is one feature that sets CHKD’s NICU apart from all other special-care nurseries in the region.

At the three-week mark, all signs of Hayden’s infection were gone and he was learning to take a bottle. Chris was back teaching at Great Bridge Middle School, but Andrea was on maternity leave from her teaching position at Grassfield High School. So she came to CHKD every morning and stayed with Hayden until early afternoon. Then Chris drove straight from school to be with him until early evening.

“The Vails never gave up,” Dr. Siegfried says. “They believed in each other and in us. They fostered an atmosphere of caring that was vitally important in Hayden’s healing.”

At 8 weeks old, Hayden was ready for Dr. Goretsky again. This time the surgeon would connect the portions of Hayden’s intestine that he had temporarily rerouted during the first surgery. Babies who have this operation can go home once they’re eating normally, which typically takes four to six weeks. Hayden was home in two. “Once he started eating again,” Andrea says, “he couldn’t get enough.”

HaydenVail2Today, Hayden is healthy and meeting all his developmental milestones. However, the Vails haven’t put CHKD behind them – they’ve grown ardent in their support, even organizing a fundraiser. Recounting their experience, they praised every aspect of Hayden’s care, from Dr. Siegfried’s warm bedside manner to Hayden’s nurses who called the NICU on their days off to check on him.

“I grew up in Hampton Roads,” Andrea says, “and you’re always hearing about CHKD. But you don’t realize what an amazing place it is until you experience it for yourself.”

Dr. Seigfried practices with Children’s Specialty Group, PLLC, at CHKD. Dr. Goretsky practices with CHKD Surgical Group’s Pediatric Surgery.

This story was featured in the Fall 2011 issue of KidStuff, a publication of Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters. Click to read more patients' stories.

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