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‘Christmas miracles’ — Chicago surgeon performs 3 kids’ heart transplants in 4 days

“There’s been a lot of Christmas miracles this year,” surgeon Carl Backer said Friday after the third operation. “When we put the new donor heart in, I always say, ‘Welcome to your new home.’”

Surgeon Carl Backer, who performed three heart transplants in four days at Lurie’s Children Hospital.
“It’s been a very busy four days, but I think we have three happy families,” surgeon Carl Backer said Friday. “Several of them have been waiting for a long time for donor hearts.”
Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times

Olivia Donnelly woke up Christmas morning asking the same thing that would be on the mind of any 9-year-old: “Mommy, can you bring my presents down?”

The 36 hours leading up to that moment, however, were different for Olivia and her family.

Olivia, born with a rare heart condition diagnosed 16 weeks into her mother’s pregnancy, had just woken up from the second heart transplant of her young life.

It was the first of three heart transplants in four days at Lurie Children’s Hospital, all performed by surgeon Carl Backer, who also did Olivia’s first operation.

“There’s been a lot of Christmas miracles this year,” Backer said Friday after the third surgery. “It’s been a very busy four days, but I think we have three happy families. Several of them have been waiting for a long time for donor hearts.”

Olivia Donnelly with her mom Lisa Donnelly after the girl’s first heart transplant seven years ago.
Olivia Donnelly with her mom Lisa Donnelly after the girl’s first heart transplant seven years ago.
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Olivia’s family had known since spring she needed a second transplant; the heart she’d had for nearly seven years was starting to fail. And after seven months of waiting, it was just seven hours between the call at 11 p.m. Monday and the surgery at 6 a.m. Christmas Eve; Olivia went from her bedroom in the family’s Naperville home to an operating room in the downtown Chicago hospital.

“It was another hard moment” telling her, said Olivia’s mom, Lisa Donnelly. “She’s crying and she’s emotional and she’s saying, ‘But it’s Christmas,’ and, ‘Am I going to go to sleep for the surgery and not wake up for days?’ That’s what matters to her. ... You don’t want to crush that.

“We said, ‘You’re going to go to sleep. Mommy and Daddy are going to be here when you wake up, and it doesn’t matter when it is, we’ll have Christmas when you’re awake because it’s only Christmas when you’re with us.’”

Brian Donnelly, shown with daughter Olivia at the family’s Naperville home.
Brian Donnelly, shown with daughter Olivia at the family’s Naperville home, stayed at the hospital during Olivia’s heart transplant while his wife, Lisa, watched their two sons at home. “Watching the ambulance drive up to the ER carrying your daughter’s heart — that’s very humbling,” Brian Donnelly said. “It makes you realize that someone’s Christmas Eve is not going as well as yours.”
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Olivia’s dad, Brian Donnelly stayed at the hospital while Lisa Donnelly cared for the couple’s two sons at home. He said this second transplant carried a tougher realization than the first.

“Watching the ambulance drive up to the ER carrying your daughter’s heart — that’s very humbling,” Brian Donnelly said. “It makes you realize that someone’s Christmas Eve is not going as well as yours.”

Backer said the operation is always a “sobering” one, but he has a special message he delivers every time.

“When we put the new donor heart in, I always say, ‘Welcome to your new home,’” Backer said. “It’s always a very touching moment.”

About 28 hours after she went into the operating room, Olivia woke up with a new heart on Christmas morning.

And she was back to her same old sassy self.

Dr. Philip Thrush, chats with Brian Donnelly and Lisa Donnelly on Friday.
Dr. Philip Thrush, chats with Brian Donnelly and Lisa Donnelly on Friday. Olivia Donnelly, 9, was one of three children who had heart transplants at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in the span of four days.
Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times

“I got a little bit of an earful for it being right before Christmas, and a little bit more of an earful today,” said Philip Thrush, the pediatric cardiologist who worked with the Donnellys and the other two families whose children had heart transplants this past week at Lurie.

Thrush and Backer said three heart transplants in four days is likely a record for Lurie, as are the five they did this month and the 34 this year — possibly the most of any hospital in the country.

Backer’s second surgery of the week was performed on 6-month-old Arya Harris, whose parents got their call at 6 p.m. Christmas Day that a donor heart was available. By the next morning, Arya had her new heart.

lurie children’s hospital
Arya Harris, 6 months, is held by her mom, Alisha Walker, after a successful heart transplant at Lurie Children’s Hospital.
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The outlook for patients like Olivia and Arya is generally positive. Both girls will spend a couple more weeks at Lurie before moving to the Ronald McDonald House for another week or two. After that, Lurie heart transplant patients have 100% survival rates for the first year after surgery, Thrush said. If they get through that year, it’s usually another 20 years before they have to be considered for another transplant.

Backer, meanwhile, was cool, calm and collected after finishing his third procedure of the week — after all, he’s done 340 of them since 1988. But even for a seasoned vet, this week was unlike most others; Christmas cookies and coffee got him and the staff through the operations.

“It’s a situation where the right donor is available at the right time for the right patient,” Thrush said. “For these three families, it really is a real Christmas blessing.

“I think it’s special every time, but I think being able to do that at Christmas — I can’t think of a better Christmas gift for a family.”

Parents Lisa and Brian Donnelly, whose daughter Olivia had her second heart transplant this week at Lurie Children’s Hospital.
Olivia was upset over having the operation around Christmas. But her mom, Lisa Donnelly, said she reassured her: “We said, ‘You’re going to go to sleep. Mommy and Daddy are going to be here when you wake up, and it doesn’t matter when it is, we’ll have Christmas when you’re awake because it’s only Christmas when you’re with us.’”
Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times