He was born in Temple, Texas in early September of 2010, my second grandson. His father and mother, my son Dr. Beau Bryan and his wife Katharine, were far removed from their Georgia roots, calling the Lone Star State home for the duration of Beau’s four years of internship and ophthalmology residency.
His name was chosen for its Biblical significance, Nathan being the prophet sent by God to David as his counselor and friend.
His granddaddy Poppie, though, was delighted that he was another in a list of Bryans bearing the name of Nathan, the most prominent of whom was Marshallville, GA’s Nathan Bryan. Having been pardoned for his participation in the Civil War, this Nathan is credited with operating Macon County’s first bank out of an old trunk and representing Macon County in the 1842 Georgia legislature.
Let’s just say the little guy had big shoes to fill.
He was normal in weight and length; his Apgar score was normal. Such a beautiful word — normal, I remember thinking. Scanning the emailed photos, I counted his fingers and toes, finding him perfect in every way.
Six days after his birth a phone call from my son raised alarm bells in this grandmother’s heart. A routine new baby checkup revealed a VSD, ventricular septal defect, doctor talk for a “hole in the heart”, one of the most common congenital heart defects.
The phrase “Bless his heart” took on a whole new meaning.
Though he showed little outward distress, the worried parents were cautioned to watch for any new symptoms. Close monitoring with frequent check-ups was the planned course of action.
Like his brother before him, little Nathan had an endearing smile, was strong and alert. Still, his heart was working so hard, there was little energy left for growing. Despite the breathless grunts and gulps of frequent nursing, he remained tiny. At three months, he weighed only 11 pounds, barely at the 10th percentile. The unsettling jolt and swoosh of the heart murmur could be seen and heard. The specter of surgery remained a possibility.
In that first winter, Nathan remained healthy and continued to thrive. By four months of age, his weight had jumped to 12 1/2 pounds. Frequent evaluations gave the parents hope that surgery was less likely. It was great news when he was allowed to begin attending the church nursery.
And our little guy started to grow.
As he grew, Nathan proved to be a fearless climber, balancing at the top of a slide. He was strong enough to pull his older brother in a wagon and dared to take giant leaps into the beach surf. He could count to 10 “…six, seven, eight…”, talked knowledgeably at 20 months about “excavators”, delighted in riding Poppie’s tractor and reading No, David!
All of which put the idea of surgery far from our minds.
His second birthday came and, with it, more tests. We knew that most VSDs close on their own by the age of two, but Nathan’s nickel-sized hole and resultant complications remained. My son and his wife were referred for an evaluation to Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, one of the top pediatric hospitals in the nation. As they faced the frightening prospect of open-heart surgery on their two-year-old son, my grandmother’s heart ached.
The surgery date was set for January 22, the one caveat being that Nathan must remain well. Knowing that a cold or flu could delay the surgery, his vigilant parents kept the children home in the weeks leading up to the surgery, dispensing liberal amounts of hand sanitizer all the while.
Airline tickets were bought and plans made to bring his three-year-old brother back to Georgia. The parents donated blood and plasma and platelets for their child. They were wrapped in a community of loving support, as people donated a place to stay in Houston, and they received gifts of the required button-up pajamas and skid-proof slippers, gift cards, food and goody bags, and prayers — lots of prayers.
Back in Georgia on the day of the surgery, I clung to his big brother’s hand, all the while clinging to my faith, praying that God would work through the hands of the surgeon and medical team to bring healing for our Nathan.
Nathan’s heart was, literally, in the hands of Dr. Charles Fraser, Surgeon-in-Chief of Texas Children’s Hospital, a man with a big heart of his own. Since 1995, when he arrived at Texas Children’s Hospital, Dr. Fraser had done an amazing 9,999 heart surgeries. Incredibly, Nathan’s surgery rounded it up to an even 10,000th for Dr. Fraser and his team.
During the five hour open-heart procedure, Nathan was on cardiopulmonary bypass for 83 minutes. A machine did the work of Nathan’s heart while Dr. Fraser, and other caring professionals, did the work of repairing his heart.
And fix it, he did. Now, in these weeks of recovery and thanksgiving, it’s the numbers that jump out — 10th percentile, 10,000 surgeries, 83 minutes — and one two-year-old boy with a normal heartbeat and a bright future.
Able to someday fill the biggest of shoes.