Why do we urge you to give to Children's Hospital every year? Because the hospital saves lives. It saved the life of a seriously ill newborn just eight weeks ago. My associate, Michelle Hall, put together this report:
Unlike most new fathers, Danny Bittner could not hand out cigars after the birth of his daughter, Emily, on Oct. 17. He was too worried that both his wife and new baby would die.
"They told my husband it would be a few hours before they knew if I made it," his wife, Debbie, recalled. "And then they told him about Emily and he just broke down."
Dr. Marilea Miller, a woman with a mop of curly brown hair and a gentle voice, is a specialist in newborn intensive care at Children's. "Emily is a very unusual, miraculous case," she explained. "She developed entirely outside of her mother's womb, in the abdomen of her mother. These pregnancies rarely go to term and there's at least a 50 percent risk of the mother dying from bleeding . . . and the babies usually don't survive."
As if that weren't enough, Emily inhaled her first bowel movement. She was battling respiratory failure caused by the foreign matter in her lungs.
But thanks to the new Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation machine at Children's, and the efforts of the ECMO team of medical attendants, Emily is breathing on her own and should be home for Christmas. If she had been born as recently as last May, before the ECMO machine was ready for use, she almost certainly would not be alive today. Even if she had been lucky enough to be among the 20 percent of babies with severe lung disease to survive, she would have continued to suffer from severe chronic lung problems.
Six-week-old Emily faces a far better future. "The long-term outcome -- we're not 100 percent sure, but she looks very good right now," said Dr. Miller.
Over coffee in the hospital's cafeteria, Dr. Billie Short explained that the ECMO machine diverts blood out of the body, oxygenates it and returns it. Also a neonatologist at Children's, she has curly blonde hair, and like Dr. Miller is strikingly gentle. "On the machine, the lungs are left alone to repair themselves . . . . The body does the magic . . . . It's rather amazing, I think, that in five days you can go from tremendously diseased lungs to basically normal lungs."
Nine centers around the country use ECMO, a refinement of the heart-lung machine used for cardiac surgery. ECMO was first used successfully in 1975. Children's has treated eight babies with ECMO. By January, the hospital will have built the equipment necessary to treat two babies at a time.
"What we're able to do with this is save 70 percent of the kids," said Dr. Short. "So we're in fact turning the statistics around . . . . And it's a very high risk group, so it's pretty impressive."
Emily was flown by helicopter from Prince William Hospital to Children's immediately after birth. For three days, Drs. Short and Miller tried to treat her with conventional medication. According to Dr. Miller, Emily's chances of survival were less than 10 percent before she went on ECMO. Debbie Bittner remembers:
"The first three days, when they told me she had no chance, I had a rough time imagining Emily. I would not put my mind on Emily being alive. It was really hard for me because I couldn't be there (she was recovering from surgery). And then when they called me and told me she had a 50 percent chance, the hope was there -- the minute she got on the ECMO. She's going to be fine. You can't help but really be happy; it's just a miracle, really. Every bit of it."
Wearing jeans, her long hair held back in combs, the 30-year-old housewife relaxed into the orange sofa cushions of the Children's public relations office and never stopped smiling. She has a lot to smile about. "Emily wouldn't have made it without ECMO. I really believe that," Debbie Bittner said.
During her second day on ECMO, Emily's chances improved dramatically. "As soon as they told me she had an 80 percent chance, I just sprung back up," Debbie Bittner recalled. "It was really that great. You know, when you have hope, that really helps. I feel so positive after all this. I feel like I'm on a high the whole time."
Debbie Bittner has nothing but praise for the hospital. "They just really love the children . . . . You have to be special to do it . . . . I can't get over how everybody is right there if you need it.
"As soon as your child gets put in Children's Hospital they give you a social worker Shirley Bennett , and that's great. She's really been fantastic. She's helped me through a lot, just talking to me, and the financial part, too." The Bittners' health insurance did not cover Emily's expenses.
"We have to try to get funding. Because they told us that as of last week her hospital bill is $85,000. I have to laugh, 'cause what can you do? . . . . She's worth it!"
Actually, according to Dr. Short, Emily's bills are lower than they might have been. Hospital bills of ECMO babies run about $50,000 less than those of conventionally treated lung-diseased babies.
Accompanied by Dr. Miller, I visited Emily in the intermediate care nursery on the third floor of the hospital. First we scrubbed up to our elbows in big stainless steel sinks and donned hospital gowns. We entered a blue room full of cribs, monitors and respirators. Nearby, a young nurse rocked a baby swaddled in white blankets.
We stopped at the first crib, which contained two teddy bears, a musical duck and a very tiny baby. "This is Emily," said Dr. Miller. "Would you like to hold her?" From underneath downy brown hair which stuck straight up in the air, big brown eyes regarded me with curiosity and disapproval. Holding six-pound Emily, full realization of the miracle began to sink in.
"Dr. Short and I spent the first week of Emily's life with her, so we feel a special tie to her," said Dr. Miller, whose oldest daughter is also named Emily.
Soon Emily Bittner will go home to Woodbridge, to her light green nursery with cheerful balloon curtains. The Bittners' only other child, 11-year-old Christina, will get her wish. She will soon be able to hold little Emily for the first time.
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.