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My son, My Story

I'm Denise Harrison, the mother of a son born with a heart condition in 1984. The following extract is from the yet unpublished book Stand Up Beside The Fireplace. It tells the story of the first devastating hours after Gary was born, as I was plunged into a scary, unknown world where hope and medical breakthroughs would become fundamental to living. Twenty-eight years on, four major heart operations since, and several complications later, he is still here to write our story.

The ward sister came to me as soon as she realised I was awake. She took me aside into a dark, empty ward. I was told that my son had something wrong with him and doctors had worked on him all night to keep him alive. It was as if a glass had shattered in that instant. Things would never be the same again. I felt empty; numb, as though I was shutting off. It must have been my mind's way of taking a blow like that. The hospital staff had done all they could but weren't "trained in the complexities of the heart."

My son would be transferred to the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle. I'd never heard of the place. I wasn't really hearing anything that the ward sister was telling me now. It's a similar sensation as when you're under water in a swimming pool and all the other sounds are muffled. That was how I was hearing everything.

Jim, my husband, would need to know next. I was merely pointed in the direction of the pay phone at the end of a freezing cold corridor and left to go alone. As I broke the news to Jim I heard something crack in his voice that I'd never heard before. It sounded as though he was wounded, as though he just wanted to sit in a corner, shy away and feel sorry for himself. He was gut wrenchingly crushed, as I was. While I prepared to travel through to the hospital in Newcastle with our baby, Jim would have to inform the family.

He arrived at the hospital and the other mothers were ushered out of the parents' room for Jim and me. While arrangements were made for the baby's transfer we pondered the outcome. The sister came into the room: they needed a name to put onto the baby's name band for transfer. It was the quickest decision we ever made. "I like the name Gary" Jim said he liked it too. "I wanted the middle name to be Ross." Jim agreed "Gary Ross it is". A special incubator was brought through from the Freeman for Gary Ross to travel in.

Upon arrival at the Freeman I did not know if Gary would live or die. He'd been born with some sort of heart problem which was why his heart kept stopping. The consultant, Dr Bain, came to see me. He explained in English - not in medical jargon - what was wrong. He spoke in a quiet but reassuring voice. Gary had been born with a hole in his heart and also had a damaged valve. I asked, "Is he going to die?" I always remember his reply: "We don't like to lose patients here." You'll never know exactly how a reassuring look and those very memorable words can fill a parent with such hope.

Gary reacted well to treatment and we thanked our lucky stars that he was still with us after that first traumatic day. But I was left numb, doing everything in a daze. Gary received the drug Prostaglandin, to simulate him still being in the womb. He was kept in a special incubator to help him breathe and to complete the effect of the womb. Religiously, we visited the hospital every day. By now we knew surgery was the only way Gary would be able to live without being permanently on oxygen. We also understood that with surgery came further risks. For now it was a waiting game. After three weeks, Gary's body began to reject the Prostaglandin. He was now an emergency; surgery his only option. The operation they planned to do was, in their words, "a Waterston shunt (or bypass)" to tide Gary over." When your child is in surgery the waiting is like no experience I can describe. For the majority of parents it is a fear of the unknown - a stigma which surrounds all hospitals - although the doctors at the Freeman never kept me in the dark. Fortunately, Gary came through his operation successfully - thank God for the children's heart unit at the Freeman Hospital.

Denise Harrison, told by Gary R. Harrison

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