Each year, during our fund-raising campaign on behalf of Children's Hospital, we recount the stories of life-threatening ailments -- and how the hospital so often saves the day. My associate, Alexandra B. Stoddard, has the story of a young boy from Northern Virginia whose life was saved at Children's after he was born with serious heart defects: When George Bursenos was born on April 10, 1987, his parents, Christopher and Maria, owners of an Alexandria flower shop, were thrilled to have had a third healthy child. However, at 5 o'clock the next morning, Maria called Christopher from her hospital bed and told him to come to the hospital right away.
By the time the father arrived, the newborn Bursenos boy had begun to turn dangerously blue. The parents say that, because they are both of Greek descent and their other children were born with dark skin, they had not previously noticed anything unusual about George.
Doctors at Fairfax Hospital told Christopher Bursenos that George's blue skin color meant that blood was not passing properly between his heart and the lungs, and that this was a common symptom of congenital heart disease.
"After two healthy children, we were in a state of shock," Christopher Bursenos recalled in an interview last week. Soon after, George was transported to Children's Hospital for open heart surgery. He was less than 24 hours old.
Doctors later discovered that George had been born with two primary defects in his heart. One was pulmonary atresia -- a blockage of George's pulmonary artery that prevented blood from flowing from the heart to the lungs. The other was a ventricular septal defect, a hole between George's right and left ventricle.
When George arrived at Children's, doctors performed the first of two "shunting" operations in which they placed a tube between the aorta and the lungs to act as a main artery.
George went home to Newington ten days later, but in the first eight months of his life, he was sick often. His pediatrician at Fairfax Hospital was concerned that he wasn't growing and put him on a high calorie diet. Yet George still did not thrive. According to Maria Bursenos, he hardly had the energy to suck his bottle. At the age of eight months, George had gained less than one pound.
When he developed pneumonia, George's pediatrician suggested that he return to Children's. Doctors recommended implanting a gastrointestinal tube so that George could directly receive the nutrients he needed to grow. Because he was burning off more calories from eating than he was taking in, doctors told the Bursenoses that without the gastronomy tube, there was a good chance George would die from malnutrition.
On Jan. 21, 1988, George underwent the first of several procedures to connect the small vessels in his heart to the main artery. According to his father, the third round of surgery marked the beginning of George's recovery.
"He started growing and putting on weight," said Christopher Bursenos. "He started coming alive."
The surgery featured a new procedure in which a catheter is used to stretch open the tiny openings in the collaterals. According to Dr. Jack Rome, director of the cardiac catheterization laboratory at Children's, who performed the procedure on George, 80 percent of the children who have had the same problem as George in the past have died.
"He represents the combination of two parts of care, the interventional catheterization and the surgery," said Dr. Rome. "The operation alone would not have allowed him to be fixed."
George is a healthy, active three-year-old with long eyelashes and beautiful dark skin. He plays with the same energy as his brother Dimitrios, 6, and his sister Joanna, 7. Yet he will have to be followed regularly for the rest of his life.
Since the tube between the right side of George's heart and his lungs is artificial, it will not grow as he does and will need to be replaced surgically in 10 or 12 years. George's parents said they hope he will be able to be taken off his intravenous feedings within a few months.
The Bursenoses say that throughout George's three years of life, Children's has been like a family to them. "They have always treated George like a son," said his mother. Christopher Bursenos said he felt as if he was losing a best friend when he took George for a check-up recently and Dr. Frank Midgely, one of George's surgeons, told him, "I'm done, keep on keeping on."
Both of George's parents wept when they spoke of George's "miracle." They give Children's all the credit.
"He had all the technical expertise and all of the positive energy that any one human being could ever want," said Christopher Bursenos. "You could just feel it."
TO CONTRIBUTE TO THE CAMPAIGN:
Make a check or money order payable to Children's Hospital and mail it to Bob Levey, The Washington Post, Washington, D.C., 20071.
THE CAMPAIGN ENDS ON JAN. 18.