A few weeks ago I attended my grandson’s high school graduation, in Jupiter. Seeing him in cap and gown brought a stream of memories rushing through my mind.
He nearly died before he was a few hours old.
T.J. (for Thomas Joseph) was born in Framingham, Massachusetts, with his trachea and esophagus interconnected. Within an hour of his birth he was drowning on his own saliva, which was trickling into his lungs.
Fortunately, Boston Children’s Hospital was less than an hour’s drive away from Framingham. T.J. was whisked there, with his mother getting out of her childbirth bed to follow him. My late wife and I sped from our home in Connecticut to Boston Children’s also.
The first time I saw T.J. he was smaller than my forearm and hooked up to a battery of medical sensors, his arms and legs churning, his tiny mouth gasping for breath. The room he was in was filled with prematurely born babies, tiny lumps of flesh, many of them small enough to hold in the palm of my hand. Up to that moment, I had never realized how desperate the first few hours of life could be.
A surgeon who looked to me young enough to portray TV’s Doogie Howser performed the operation that saved T.J.’s life. It was a lucky thing that he was born close enough to a children’s hospital that had the staff, the equipment, the knowledge and the dedication to save him.
And now there he was, a smiling handsome six-footer in cap and gown, graduating high school, on his way to college.
I have a great admiration for children’s hospitals. That’s why I was so interested when my dearest friend and I attended a gathering in Bonita Springs to listen to Jim Nathan outline plans for a much-needed expansion of the Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida.
There are lots of jokes about how many retirees come to southwest Florida. Golden agers retire to Sarasota, one clown wisecracked, and their grandparents go to Naples.
The truth is that our population of children and teenagers is growing rapidly. And the need for a full-sized, modern children’s hospital is growing with it.
The existing Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida is part of Lee County’s Health Park Center. It is “a hospital within a hospital,” containing 98 beds.
It is the only children’s hospital facility between Tampa and Miami. But it is too small to handle the growing demand for children’s medical services.
That’s why the hospital’s board, led by Nathan, is striving to build a new facility on the Health Park Center campus, a dedicated children’s hospital that will hold 148 beds, and will be staffed and equipped to meet the growing demand for children’s medical services.
Nathan envisions the new hospital as a nexus that will bring together the specialists and sub-specialists needed to take care of southwest Florida’s children. The hospital is seeking $125 million in public donations, to which an additional $66 million will be added from bond offerings.
Like the existing facility, the new Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida will be able to help children from newborn “preemies” to teenagers, staffed and equipped to deal with all the diseases and trauma that children are subject to. Sick and injured children in our region will be able to find the facilities and expert staff that they need, without having to be sent to Tampa or Miami.
This is a regional effort to deal with a regional problem. The people of southwest Florida have the opportunity – and the responsibility – to help build this much-needed new facility.
As I watched T.J. receive his high school diploma, with his younger brother Danny watching from the orchestra, where he plays the tuba, I realized that without the medical care T.J. received in the earliest hours of his life he would never have lived to see this moment.
How many other children in southwest Florida will face similar health emergencies? How many will die if we don’t have adequate facilities and trained medical personnel to take care of them?
Ben Bova is the author of “The Immortality Factor,” a medical thriller about stem cell research. Dr. Bova’s Web site address is www.benbova.com.