I wrote this column for the Herald for Thanksgiving 2005.
As we welcomed in the holidays with Thanksgiving last week, I was reminded of a story about a little Pleasanton girl.
Though her birth was healthy, neither her parents nor her doctor could know that something inside her would take the little girl on a pilgrimage toward death.
"It wasn’t until she was two that we had any indication anything was wrong," her mother said.
What was wrong was the girl had a leaky heart valve, a condition called mitral insufficiency that causes the heart to enlarge over time as it battles the leak with every beat.
But the weak valve was just one challenge the girl faced. The two-year-old was also diagnosed with a condition that made the circumference of her chest much smaller than that of other kids her age. Coupled with her enlarged heart, this left little room for her lungs.
To assist her breathing, a tank was brought into the home, and a clear plastic tube—long enough for the girl to play anywhere in the house—provided oxygen 24 hours a day.
"She got used to the tube," her father said. "Nothing got her down. She was always smiling and loved being funny."
For several months, even as doctors monitored the girl and deliberated over the timing of eventual heart surgery, the family was much like any other on the block. The girl and her six-year-old sister played with Barbies and made forts, and the family would laugh if a pea accidentally shot across the table during dinner.
But one day a specialist at Children’s Hospital in Oakland showed x-rays of the girl’s chest to her parents. Her bronchial tube was being crushed by her heart, and most of her lungs had become filled with fluid.
"We learned this just before flu season," her mother said, "and if she were to catch the flu, her lungs almost certainly could not have handled it."
So the decision was made.
The girl would undergo open-heart surgery in late October, the day after her third birthday.
The operation took many hours, and as the parents and grandparents began their wait by forming a prayer circle in the hospital waiting room, the surgeon unlocked the brave little girl’s heart and peered inside.
Then he went to work.
Today, the girl is ten and, though smaller than kids her age, is healthy. She is loved by her mother, Helen; her sister, Melissa; her stepmother, Pamela; and me, her father.
Yes, this story is about my daughter, Kelsey.
As we begin this holiday season, I want to share a poem I came across last week that reminded me of Kelsey’s pilgrimage. It’s a poem I wrote on Thanksgiving in 1998, one month after her surgery.
This morning as I sipped early coffee
in the quiet rustle of newspaper
I studied a photo of elementary students
dressed like pilgrims.
Then, as I raked backyard leaves,
my three-year-old thumped
her hand at me against the pane,
blue eyes, smiling turkey teeth.
we barely knew she was sick,
didn’t know she had begun to diminish,
her heart wishing to keep up with life.
But this morning, she thumped her hand solid
as a heart repaired to health,
a wonder inconceivable
at the first Thanksgiving in 1619.
Yet not unlike those pilgrims
we are humbled by survival,
and today I imagine her in grade-school,
tasting the miracle of pumpkin pie.
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