A bumpy ride to health
It's amazing how much life can change in just three short months. Just ask Vanessa and Charlie Koch, who quickly went from showing off their healthy newborn son to awaiting a call that would save his life.
Andy Koch was born healthy, but a week before his 2-month check-up, Vanessa noticed that his face was a little yellow. After weeks of different hospitals, different doctors and many tests, Andy was diagnosed with biliary atresia (the congenital absence or closure of the ducts that drain bile from the liver)—a condition only treatable with surgery. Without surgery children don't live past age 2.
The family, who is from Bangor, Maine, was referred to Barbara Bush Children's Hospital in their home state, where Andy underwent a surgical procedure to remove the atretic biliary ducts outside his liver and attach the small intestine to his liver for drainage. But the procedure didn't hold and Andy needed a second surgery a week later. That was followed by more complications, so Andy was referred to Heung Bae Kim, MD, surgical director of the Liver, Intestine and Multivisceral Transplantation Center at Children's Hospital Boston. After a full evaluation, Andy was placed on the transplant list to receive a new liver.
The next three months were filled with visits to doctors in different states and anxiety, as the Koches waited for a liver for Andy. The family prepared as much as possible, mentally and physically, for the transplant, and after two trial runs, they felt as prepared as they could be.
When the call finally came on January 12, 2005, that a liver was available, the Koches thought they had cleared the biggest hurdle in restoring their son's health. Little did they know that a raging New England blizzard would prove to be their biggest challenge.
"We think we have a match, but go back to sleep. We'll call you back around 6 a.m.," said a voice on the other end of the line at 1 a.m. Unable to sleep, Vanessa grabbed her suitcase and to-do lists, made phone calls to the extended family and tried to stay focused. After getting the go-ahead at 7 a.m., Vanessa called Life Flight to arrange their trip to Children's. "We don't fly in bad weather," they said, "but we will see what we can do." An ambulance was out of the question, as they had to be in Boston by 12 p.m. "My whole body took a step back," Vanessa recalls. "Things were supposed to work."
Panic set in. It was creeping up to 9 a.m. when the phone rang again. "Pack a small bag with only the necessities and Andy's car seat," they said. "The Maine National Guard is going to fly you to Boston in a helicopter, and they are scheduled to leave at 9:30 a.m." After a frazzled, 20-minute car ride in the blizzard, friendly members of the National Guard greeted them as if it was part of their daily routine. "I was absolutely floored that the National Guard could do this for us," Vanessa says. "It was overwhelming to see how everyone pitched in to help out a baby they had never even met."
Vanessa laughs recalling the bumps and white-out conditions of the flight. "I am petrified of flying," she says. "I never thought I would fly in a helicopter, let alone a Black Hawk, to take my son to Boston for a liver transplant. It was quite a ride."
The National Guard got Andy to Children's safely, and for seven hours, the Koches anxiously passed the time by pacing, mindlessly reading and napping. Running on adrenaline and a lot of coffee, Vanessa and Charlie were glad to hear that the surgery went extremely well. "We were so relieved that it went smoothly," Vanessa says.
On January 21, after five days in intensive care and five more on 8 North, doctors told Vanessa and Charlie that their son could go home. Tons of questions raced through their heads about their ability to care for Andy, but after being quizzed on all of the medications, possible side effects and complications, the Koch family returned home. They made the trip in yet another winter snow storm, but this time without the help of the National Guard.
Today, Andy is 8 months old and is doing very well. With chubby cheeks and lots of hair, you'd think he was a completely healthy baby. And although nothing could prepare the Koch family for the events of the last five months, they can say that a Black Hawk helicopter saved little Andy's life. "The six-inch scar and eight bottles of medicine are a good reminder of what we're dealing with," says Vanessa. "But we live day-to-day life normally again, with a new perspective on bumps and bruises."