In a corner of Fairfax County, near the Arlington County line, a freshly painted, white stucco house sits primly on Summerfield Road, a quiet lane not far from the bustle of nearby Arlington Boulevard.
Outside the house, a young man in corduroys and a workshirt is washing his car, while a melon-colored hound follows him around the graveled driveway.
On the porch are signs of a child -- a canvas stroller, a portable crib. And inside, a young woman is caring for that child, her first.
The house and the young couple blend inconspicuously into the neighborhood. But the similarities fade almost as soon as a visitor enters the house and hears the story the couple has to tell.
Theresa Miller was 18 and still in high school when she married her next door sweetheart, Pat O'Connor, in 1978. Pat was 27 and worked as an auto mechanic for five years.
When their son Danny was born the next year -- on May 19, 1979 -- Pat and Theresa were thrilled. But in the 11 months since, Danny has been home only three months.
Danny suffers from biliary atresia, a rare congenital disease occurring in one out of every 20,000 births. As a result, Danny has had three major operations, and his distended stomach bears the railroad scars that mark surgeon's efforts to save his life.
Scars caused by biliary atresia close the bile ducts, blocking drainage of bile from the liver. When bile accumulates in the liver, cirrhosis -- a progressive and generally fatal degeneration of the liver -- may set in. Danny O'Connor has acute cirrhosis.
Danny's condition was diagnosed when he was almost four months old. Initial examinations immediately after his birth had revealed no problems, except for jaundice, a condition noted by a yellow tint to an infant's skin and not uncommon in newborn children.
When Danny was eight weeks old, Theresa took him for a routine examination. Theresa mentioned that Danny still seemed jaundiced and his stomach appeared bloated. She also mentioned that he frequently was colicky in the evening. Tests were conducted, and after she heard nothing, she assumed everything was all right.
Three weeks later, at the age of 11 weeks, the thin veil of health began to disintegrate when a visiting nurse urged Theresa to again take Danny for another examination. His skin was too yellow, the nurse said, and his stomach was unusually bloated.
The couple was referred to Children's Hospital in the District and to Dr. Peter Altman, senior surgeon at the hospital. Dr. Altman said he told the O'Connors of Danny's disease and recommended surgery.
Until eight years ago, no successful surgical method for correcting Danny's condition existed, and most children died before they were 18 months old. Dr. Altman first performed the operation, he said, after reading about the Kasai method, a technique named for the Japanese doctor who pioneered it.
In the operation, scarred bile ducts are replaced with tubing constructed from a patient's intestine. The tubing joins the liver to the intestines, enabling drainage of the bile.
The article stressed, however, that early detection was critical to preventing further complications from bile build-up and said that successful drainage did not ensure a patient's survival.
The usual age limit for the operation is three months. Danny was four months old when he first underwent surgery last September.
Just as Pat and Theresa were adjusting to the severity of their son's problem, and barely two weeks after Danny's operation, the O'Connors were faced with another problem.
As Pat recalls it, one day in late September, the received a frantic call at work from Theresa. An eviction notice had just arrived in the mail. Although Pat disputed the eviction over the next three months, the O'Connors eventually wound up in court and were evicted from their apartment.
Throughout their problems with their apartment, the O'Connors were struggling with mounting expenses for Danny and increasing concern over their son's condition. O'Connor, who was bringing home $185 a week when he was first married, now takes home $350 a week and often works 12-hour days.
In late October, Danny entered the hospital again. A month later he underwent surgery a second time, in an effort to reduce an infection in his liver.
Danny's latest operation was performed March 5, this time to relieve the accumulation of fluid in his abdominal cavity.
Danny has been home for a month now. The O'Connor accept the reality of Danny's uncertain future, a canopy of hope gracing their quiet speech.
"We're just running on faith, living day by day," says Theresa.
Pat O'Connor reflects his wife's uncertainty.
"For any man who's ever lived, his first son has been very, very special," he says quietly. "A man's not supposed to bury his kids."
So far, Children's Hospital has absorbed about $95,000 of Danny's medical bills. State and local agencies have also paid more than $182 for each day Danny was in the hospital.
A Continuing problem for the O'Connors has been trying to understand what help is available to families like them. It was not until Marie Patrick, a medical assistance worker at Children's Hospital, talked to the couple that they began to receive help from state and federal agencies.
An ironic, and unfortunate, twist to their financial problems came two weeks ago when the O'Connors received a summons, stating that Arlington County Hospital was suing them for $800 in upaid maternity bills. This week, after the county Department of Human Resources was told of the summons, a spokesman in the social services office said the bill will be paid by a government agency.
Meanwhile, Theresa is pregnant, and although she worries about being able to care for another child, both she and Pat say they are looking forward to the new baby.
Both O'Connors say they realize the coming months will not be easy, but Pat says he and Theresa can handle any of the problems.
"When you've been raised to take care of your family, you do. That's all."