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02-13-03: At the heart of it all
St. Henry youngster does well after heart surgery as infant

The Daily Standard
    ST. HENRY - Five-year-old Donald scoots across the bare floor of his family's dining room, as he commandeers Thomas the Train around its seemingly never-ending track.
    Like other kids his age he plays hard, but the 10-inch scar that spans the length of his small chest is a constant reminder that his boyhood adventures must always be monitored - and his family must be ready to respond in a heartbeat, literally.
    Paula Heitkamp of St. Henry vividly recalls the dozens of tubes and wires trailing from her infant son's body as he lay in a small hospital bed more than five years ago. Donald Colton Heitkamp, just 1 month old, was recovering from six hours of open heart surgery.
    "As they wheeled him out of surgery, the nurses told us he looked so good," said the 42-year-old mother of four. "I thought, OThis is good? He looks so pale and lifeless.' "
    Heitkamp and her husband of 15 years, David, were elated when Donald, their fourth child and first son, came into the world that September day in 1997. But before they could cherish their family's newest addition, the 8 pound, 14 1/2 ounce baby turned purple and was struggling to breathe.
    Little Donald was rushed to Children's Hospital, Dayton, where a heart catheterization was performed - he was barely a day old. Donald was born with what doctors called "transposition of the great arteries." In other words, his heart had developed abnormally in the womb.
    "There were four things wrong with his heart," Paula Heitkamp said. "They needed to poke a hole in his heart for oxygen and blood to flow. He also had a hole in his heart that needed repair."
    Although Donald appeared healthy, his aorta and pulmonary artery were in the wrong ventricle and only surgery could return a healthy oxygen flow and pink glow to his body. Donald stayed at the hospital for two weeks before being sent home to gain strength for "the big surgery" two weeks later.
    "We lived on the floor next to his bed, next to the heart monitor and oxygen," Paula Heitkamp said. "The monitor went off all the time and drove us nuts, but Donald did OK."
    Two weeks later, the Heitkamps brought their dark-haired bundle to the Cleveland Clinic where heart specialist Dr. Mee of Australia performed the crucial surgery Donald needed to survive.
    "They (doctors) explained his chances of survival to us like this: If 15 Donalds were having this surgery, five of them wouldn't make it," Paula Heitkamp said as she recalled the doctor's conversation. "My husband was nervous, but I just had the feeling everything would be fine."
    Motherly instincts prevailed and Donald bounced back from the invasive surgery. Now, at 5, he "bounces off the walls" while his parents and three sisters try to keep him in check, his mother laughed.
    Approximately eight out of every 1,000 infants - about 40,000 children each year - are born with a heart defect, according to the American Heart Association. Heart patients, like Donald, are at an obviously higher health risk than others and it's imperative that family members, and others who surround him daily such as teachers or baby-sitters know cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and other life-saving methods.
    Paula Heitkamp said she and her husband took a CPR class at the Dayton hospital before they took Donald home for the first time.
    "They also gave us a booklet about CPR, which we tied to the end of his crib in case we panicked and forgot what to do," she added.
    Even if you don't reside with someone with a heart condition or other illness, you never know what lies ahead at home, school or work. Education in a variety of first-aid measures could mean the difference between life and death.
    The American Heart Association recently began a new seven- to eight-hour program to teach lay emergency responders, workplace employees, and family members of high risk patients about CPR, automatic external defibrillation (AED), and other first-aid techniques. The program, "Heartsaver Facts First Aid Program," is currently being offered at Community Hospital, Coldwater, and Joint Township District Memorial Hospital, St. Marys.
    However, hospital education director/registered nurse Kathy Hemmelgarn said the general public can greatly benefit from basic CPR education.
     "CPR is an important link in the chain of survival," Hemmelgarn said. "The role of a bystander can be crucial while waiting for emergency workers to arrive."
    Hemmelgarn explained that AED equipment works amazingly efficient but if the patient has no shockable rhythm, CPR becomes crucial to maintain vital signs until medical help can be obtained.
    Donald Heitkamp will continue regular visits to his heart doctor and will likely need another open heart surgery by the time he turns 13, his mother said. But he's a fighter, she added.
    His sister, 14-year-old Christine, calls him her hero. For a social studies assignment three years ago, Christine wrote this about her baby brother:
    "Even though he is only 2 years old, he has done a lot for me. When I get hurt I just think how much he (went) through when he was born. ... He had to fight for his life, the way I see it. ... He is a happy little boy now, and healthy too. I thank God every day that Donald is well and with us now."


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