Perfect little hearts

Published 2:39 pm Friday, February 12, 2010

The procedure was expected to take about 45 minutes. The pediatric cardiologist would call when it was finished.

Two hours had passed.

Tommy Windham looked up to see the doctor standing in the doorway. He knew immediately that something was wrong.

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The young father still gets emotional when he talks about that day and those that followed until the healing of two little broken hearts.

Leigh Anne Windham and her husband handled the trauma in their lives differently.

He, in a quiet way that wrenched his own heart. She, admittedly, just “went to pieces.”

Their twins, Anna and Sarah, were their hearts. They came into the world wrapped in bundles of joy with no hint that anything was less than perfect. Then, three months later during a regular checkup, the pediatrician heard a murmur in little Sarah’s heart.

A pediatric cardiologist found the problem, a small hole in the baby’s heart.

But almost before the doctor’s words had time to register with the young parents, he assured them that such a condition was not uncommon among babies and that, in time, the condition could correct itself.

“A hole in Sarah’s heart? We didn’t expect anything like that,” Leigh Anne said. “But, the doctor said ‘typically’ it would heal itself. He seemed confident.”

A few months later, during the twins’ regular checkup, the pediatrician heard a murmur in little Anna’s heart. The hole was larger than the one in Sarah’s heart.

“Because the hole was larger, it was harder to hear the murmur because the sound was not as distinct,” Leigh Anne said. “That’s why it was not found earlier.”

There was enough “flapping” tissue around the holes in both hearts that the cardiologist was hopeful that they would close on their own.

After six months, the holes had not gotten smaller. The pediatric cardiologist told the parents, “It’s time.”

“The hope was that they could, through cauterization, close the holes and not have to do surgery,” Tommy said. “We were relieved. That didn’t seem as risky.”

The procedure was to take between 30 and 45 minutes. Anna was first. Tommy and Leigh Anne waited anxiously for the clock to tick off 30 minutes. Then 45. Then an hour.

They began to worry. Two hours went by.

“When I saw the doctor standing in the door, I knew,” Tommy said. “He said that he tried and tried but couldn’t fix the hole in Anna’s heart. He told us that the anatomy of the twins was so similar that he didn’t think he would be able to do Sarah’s. But he would try if we wanted him to.”

Leigh Anne didn’t hesitate.

“I said no. I didn’t want Sarah to have to go through that for nothing,” she said.

The only other option was the one Tommy and Leigh Anne didn’t think they could bear to hear. The words “open heart surgery” were strong enough to almost stop their hearts.

“I was a basket case,” Leigh Anne said. “Tommy just shut down. Neither of us handled it well.”

Scheduling the surgery was up to Tommy and Leigh Anne.

“We decided on June,” Tommy said. “We just thought that would be a better time. If there was a better time.”

The waiting was taxing on the young parents. Just knowing what their twins were facing and not knowing what the outcome would be was “excruciating.”

“The anticipation was terrible,” Leigh Anne said. “Excruciating. I didn’t think I could go through it. I was totally out of sorts.”

Tommy’s cousin, who is a surgeon, tried to comfort him.

“He said, for pediatric cardiologists, that kind of surgery is just another day at the office,” Tommy said. “But it was our baby girls.”

The couple prepared the twins as best they could for the surgery.

“They understood some,” Leigh Anne said. “They were scared, but they thought it was going to be like going to the doctor. I didn’t know how I was going to get through it. I didn’t know how we were going to get through it.”

But God was the way through.

“Riding to Birmingham, something happened,” Leigh Anne said. “It was just like all of the fear vanished. God gave us the strength it took to do what we had to do.”

Once in the hospital, the twins cried and wanted to go home, and that was hard on their parents.

“But, when they rolled Anna away on the stretcher, I wasn’t sure … I still cry when I think about it,” Tommy said. “That was the hardest time for me.”

Anna’s surgery went as planned and she was taken into ICU as Sarah was rolled away for surgery.

It wasn’t any easier to see little Sarah vanish into the operating room ,but Tommy and Leigh Ann took heart in the success of Anna’s surgery.

When Sarah came out of surgery, her bed was placed next to Anna’s in ICU.

There is no way for Tommy and Leigh Anne to describe their emotions as they stood beside two little girls in ICU.

“But we knew that we were blessed,” Leigh Anne said. “There were children in the hospital waiting for hearts and others facing very serious surgeries. Anna and Sarah’s hearts were fixable. Some others weren’t.”

By chance, Leigh Anne had seen a friend through the open door of a room down the hall from the twins.

“Her baby, a six-month old little boy, was at UAB for his second heart surgery,” Leigh Anne said. “I’ve never seen as many wires and tubes as he was hooked up to. His little chest was open and you could see his little heart. The doctors did all they could, but he didn’t make it. There was no doubt that we were blessed.”

The road to recovery wasn’t a smooth one, but it was a happy one.

The twins were very emotional as predicted and expected.

They cried and whined and even through a few fits, but all that racket was music to Tommy and Leigh Anne’s ears.

And, with their broken hearts healed, the twins had newfound energy that could wear a body down. Two bodies down. And more.

Tommy and Leigh Anne Windham have been richly blessed with twin girls who now have perfect little hearts. They owe it all to prayer and to the skill of doctors who can fix little broken hearts.

“We can never thank people enough for all of their thoughts and prayers,” Leigh Anne said. “Anna and Sarah’s names were on every prayer list in Troy and the county. People might not realize what that means to those who are going through such difficult times. I didn’t realize it until it was our turn. We could feel the love and support and it carried us through. God hears prayers, and He answered ours.”