James Gill came into the world far too early, 128 days early, with a wailing battle cry as powerful as his one pound, six ounce, 12-and-a-half inch body could muster.
He shocked everyone, especially the doctors who had never seen a baby born after only 22 weeks in the womb survive. That’s because it was 30 years ago: May 20, 1987. That day, James became the world’s most premature baby. It appears in the 1989 Guinness Book of World Records. James has the book, and a collection of impossibly tiny bonnets and booties his mother saved from his days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. They look like doll clothes.
His father Jim raced behind the ambulance carrying his mother Brenda from their home town of Brockville to the Civic Hospital in Ottawa. Doctors there determined she was in premature labour. The medical team greeted them with grim news: their baby would not survive. James proved them wrong.
Most parents wistfully imagine their baby’s development with the help of grainy ultrasound images and a growing baby bump. Jim and Brenda watched James develop through the window of his incubator. His ears, hands and feet were not fully formed; his eyes were fused shut. James’ parents advocated for him while the medical team went into uncharted territory. The team came up with creative solutions to care for James. A catheter bag filled with saline created a tiny water-bed to gently cradle his soft, still-developing skull. His skin was so delicate it would tear with the removal of the gentlest medical tape; calls were made to other hospitals to get advice on how to protect it and promote healing.
Incredibly, James suffered no lingering effects from his early arrival. Many premature babies grow up with developmental delays, breathing difficulties, impaired vision and hearing.
“I owe my life to them,” James says simply. “My parents especially and the doctors, nurses and staff all fought to save me…,” his voice trails off. “CHEO is such a wonderful place for both parents and kids.”
James also needed heart surgery. During his 128 days in hospital, world renowned cardiac surgeon Dr. Wilbert Keon performed the procedure to close one of his tiny heart valves. At the time of the surgery James weighed just one pound.
The Gills took their baby boy home on his due date: September 25, 1987. James and his family appeared on the CHEO Telethon a few times with long time CHEO advocate and family friend Max Keeping. “Max was a great guy. He had a very personal connection to our family my whole life. He arranged for me to be taken home from the hospital in a limousine,” James recalls, smiling. Max stayed in contact with the Gills, even visiting James’ mother in hospital when she was fighting cancer. He spoke at Brenda’s funeral service when she passed away in 2006.
James is making good use of the life he fought so hard for. He is grateful for his tight-knit family and a career in the automotive industry, recently joining Barrhaven Mazda as Service Manager. His message is simple. “I’m here – and I may not know yet why, but I’m fortunate for everything that’s happened in my life. If anything, maybe I can offer hope to families going through the same thing. I’m living proof. My parents and CHEO helped me beat the odds!”
At CHEO, child life specialists help children and their families work through difficult situations emotionally and psychologically. In all areas of the hospital they support families navigating a vast array of circumstances, from a terrified toddler about to experience his first needle, to an inconsolable mom whose child is in surgery.
CHEO has one of the busiest Emergency Departments in the country, and it is where Child Life Specialist Lisa O’Kane has worked for 13 years. After a brief conversation with Lisa, it becomes obvious that her passion for helping children and families runs deep, a trait instilled by her parents. That passion, combined with her ability to read people and assess situations makes her a perfect fit in CHEO’s Emergency Department. “The Emergency Department is unlike other hospital units,” says Lisa. “I love the unpredictability. My heart races when I start my shift because you never know what kind of a day it’s going to be. It could be a day filled with trauma cases or a day of broken bones and lacerations.”
The fact that there is no such thing as a “slow day” in the Emergency Department is part of what motivates Lisa. A constantly busy waiting room means she is always scanning for the child or family that needs some help. “The reality of the Emergency Department is that nobody wants to be here,” Lisa explains. “They are here because they are worried about their child and it is usually their worst day. Sometimes the smallest things I do can go a long way. For example, if a mom is in the waiting room with a crying child and they have been there for an hour, have seen other patients going ahead of them and are thinking they have been forgotten, you can feel their anxiety. I will sit beside them and say things like: this must be hard for you, what can I do to help you? Have you eaten? Do you need a blanket for your child? Suddenly after some simple conversation mom is breathing a little easier, and feels better about the situation.”
It is often the child that needs the most attention and Lisa has learned plenty of tricks over the years to help calm a frightened little one. “Let’s say I have a four year old boy who needs an IV for pain medication. I will use the doll in my teaching kit and show him what is going to happen,” explains Lisa. “Then when the nurse comes in with the IV cart, the child will recognise everything and there will be no surprises. They will say things like, ‘there’s the blue band they’re going to use,’ and ‘I’m going to get a squeeze on my arm.’ By having the child take part and making them feel empowered you can take them from being scared to doing high fives after the IV is in.”
Child life specialists help patients cope with fear, anxiety, separation and adjustment to the hospital experience. In the Emergency Department that means reduced pain, less sedation, shorter procedures and kids and families going home sooner. Lisa does everything she can to make those things happen and is thankful for donor support. “I think we are very privileged to have a hospital like this,” says Lisa. “As a mom, all three of my children have needed CHEO and I feel we are so lucky to have this incredible hospital. Thank you. With your continued support child life specialists will always be here to support CHEO patients and the doctors and nurses who care for them.”
A GIRL WITH GOALS
Isla MacIntosh is so much fun to get to know. She’s energetic, enthusiastic, kind and vibrant. Like a lot of wonderful young people in our community she has dreams for the future and a varied list of sports she likes to play and things she’s excited to be learning in school. But unlike many of her peers Isla’s had challenges to face. Read More
Each year, CHEO identifies a remarkable child to represent all CHEO patients in the Children’s Miracle Network Champions program presented by Walmart Canada. This awareness program was designed to educate communities on the life-saving work being done by pediatric hospitals across the continent. Jacob Randell has been a CHEO patient since being diagnosed with atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumour at the age of five. Read More
Senators bring holiday cheer to CHEO’s kids
The hockey heroes of Canada’s capital came to visit the kids at CHEO and OCTC on December 22th and once again the children, youth and their families were overjoyed to see their favorite players in person. Read More
One of the wonderful stories to come out of CHEO and the Foundation in 2016 is the amalgamation of CHEO and the Ottawa Children’s Treatment Centre (OCTC). With a motto of “Stronger Together,” this amalgamation will provide families easier access to more integrated and coordinated services. Read More
Reunited: Sophia and Dr. Dhanani
It’s been ten years since Sophia King Gillis and her parents, Bill and Laurel met Dr. Sonny Dhanani at CHEO. Sophia was five years old and was brought in with a very high fever and experiencing hallucinations.
That was November 3, 2006.
During the drive to the hospital – Sophia’s eyes half open and seemingly vacant, she said, “Mummy, I can’t see.” Read More
LCBO employees and generous customers inspired by brave CHEO patient
This month LCBO stores throughout Ontario are giving back in a big way thanks to a dedicated team of employees, generous customers and the inspiration of a brave young man. Read More
From the moment Dawson was born I learned that I would need to take life one day at a time in order to be strong for my family. I can tell you without a doubt it was not easy to think that way initially. Read More
My husband Andrew and I are proud parents of three beautiful children. We have a dog and some chickens too so our house is busy! The kids are seven, five and three so we are always doing something – running to activities, preparing food, doing homework, playing – the usual things. Read More