In her seventh month of pregnancy, Boca Raton, Florida resident Jacki Walsh’s ultrasound produced unusual results—her physician couldn’t see her unborn child’s stomach.
“My husband, John, and I tried not to be too concerned because there was nothing we could do until the baby was born,” Jacki explains. “However, the potential for a problem was constantly in the back of our minds.”
The reason for their concern became painfully clear when 5-pound, 10-ounce Shannon Walsh was born on November 3, 2003, via cesarean section. Diagnosed with esophageal atresia, she was airlifted to Nicklaus Children's Hospital, formerly Miami Children's Hospital, within hours of her birth. There, a procedure never before performed in South Florida saved Shannon’s life.
A Potentially Deadly Situation
Esophageal atresia is a condition in which the esophagus (the tube connecting the mouth to the stomach) is too short, keeping infants from swallowing food—a disorder with devastating results ranging from pneumonia to choking and even death. The gap in Shannon’s esophagus reached from the bottom of her neck to her diaphragm. To give Shannon the best chance at a healthy life, immediate treatment was essential.
“I saw Shannon for only a few minutes before she was taken in a helicopter,” Jacki explains. “When I found out she was going an hour away, my immediate reaction was wanting her with me, but I’m forever thankful that she was flown to Nicklaus Children's.”
Breaking Ground, Healing Shannon
Upon arrival at the hospital, John met with Cathy Anne Burnweit, MD, FACS, FAAP, pediatric surgeon on staff at Nicklaus Children's, to discuss a new option to repair Shannon’s esophagus. Whereas traditional repair of esophageal atresia involves months of slowly connecting the esophagus, a new method would require only days to connect the esophagus and allow Shannon to eat without a feeding tube.
In the procedure, four long stitches are attached to each end of the esophagus and drawn outside of the body. Over a few days, the stitches are pulled to extend the esophagus. Once long enough, the pieces of the esophagus are sewn together.
“I had studied the procedure and was in contact with the person who developed it, John Foker, MD. Though we’d never before performed the surgery, I was certain it could help young Shannon,” explains Dr. Burnweit. “She has benefited greatly from this procedure.”
A Special Gift for the Holiday Season
After spending the first two months of her life at Nicklaus Children's, Shannon went home last year on December 23. Now a completely healthy, normal child, the only hints of her dramatic first days of life are two small surgical scars under her right arm.
“None of this could have been possible without Dr. Burnweit and the incredible staff at Nicklaus Children's,” Jacki says. “They were more than medical professionals—they were social workers, friends and family, and I could never say ‘Thank you’ enough.”