New hearts aplenty at children’s hospital

One child was in the middle of a T-ball season. Another was thought to have a routine chest cold. A third had been in and out of the hospital all his life with congenital heart disease.

All three of them, in a possibly unprecedented span of just 36 hours last week, underwent heart transplants — performed by the same doctor at Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto — that saved their lives.

Starting the morning of Aug. 3 and finishing midday on Aug. 4, 6-year-old Sierra Bingham of Haines, Ore., 5-year-old Benjamin Thornton of Cloverdale and 2-year-old Peter Hanson of Menlo Park received hearts, said Bernstein.

“In cardiology, we say that everything comes in threes,” said Dr. Daniel Bernstein, the co-director of the Children’s Heart Center. “I didn’t dream that that was going to happen.”

In 2005, the hospital conducted 11 such transplants, with their highest total being 16, Bernstein said.

The typical wait for children on the transplant list is eight months to a year, while an adult’s average wait is three to four weeks, Bernstein said. Annually, there are roughly 3500 adult heart transplants in the U.S., he added, and maybe 350 youth heart transplants; back-to-back surgeries are rare, let alone back-to-back surgeries in one hospital.

Benjamin, a fan of Thomas the Tank Engine and puzzles, had an enlarged heart and had been on a Berlin heart machine, a device that acts as the heart, since early June. His condition was discovered in April, when he had a chest cold and got a chest x-ray to check for pneumonia. On the donor list by May 27, he went into cardiac arrest the day after Memorial Day and was revived after lengthy CPR.

At 5 a.m. Aug. 3, a match was found for Benjamin, and seven hours later, under the steady hands of Dr. Bruce Reitz, Benjamin had a new heart.

Reitz, who performed the first pediatric heart transplant at Lucille Packard in 1983, was unavailable for comment.

“I just can’t wait to have him home and hold him,” said Benjamin’s mother, Angel Thornton, whose husband, Gary, is a deputy sheriff for Sonoma County. She said it was awkward holding her son when he was on the Berlin heart because of all the tubes.

Sierra was so sick with an enlarged heart that doctors didn’t think she would make it through the night and had scheduled her to be put on a heart machine. A match was found, however, for the Josh Groban and Kelly Clarkson fan who had fallen ill during the T-ball season in May.

By 5 p.m., Sierra was in surgery with Reitz, and by 11 p.m. she was recovering.

“I want food,” the young swimming enthusiast said, but doctors had her on a strict diet of ice chips Wednesday.

“We went from devastation to cloud 10 in a second,” her mother, Stacy Bingham, a registered nurse in Washington, said of the call that a match was found.

Asked to describe that feeling, Peter’s father, Charles Hanson, could only say that it was like “running downhill and having your shoulders out front of your feet — impossibly fast.”

Charles and his wife, Katharine, had considered donating Peter’s organs, but the call came at 2:30 a.m. Aug. 4 that doctors had found a match.

Peter, a Wiggles lover and budding Beatles fan — he loves Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, his dad said — received his new heart early that morning after being operated on by Reitz. It was the third heart surgery of his life.

Bay Area NewsLocal

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