Calvin Monroe, 5, looks like he stepped out of the Sunday comics.
It’s Halloween morning. He steps through the elevator doors at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital Congenital Heart Center, wearing a red- and black-striped shirt.
He’s carrying his well-loved stuffed animal, Hobbes, a gift from his aunt on the day of his birth.
Calvin’s hair is spiked with gel.
“He’s Calvin and Hobbes,” his mom, Holly, says.
On this morning, Calvin and Hobbes are there for a heart scan and a follow-up appointment with his cardiologist, Christopher Ratnasamy, MD.
They’ve been through worse together. Much worse.
Just weeks earlier, Calvin cuddled Hobbes as he recovered from open heart surgery.
At just 3 months old, Calvin had Hobbes by his side during a weeks-long hospital stay in which doctors placed him on a life-saving machine that pumped his heart.
In the wake of a successful surgery on Oct. 7, performed by pediatric cardiovascular surgeon Marcus Haw, MD, doctors are hoping it’ll be awhile before Calvin and his stuffed Hobbes again see the inside of an operating room.
“He’s a trouper,” Holly said.
Shortly after his October 2014 birth, doctors diagnosed Calvin with Ebstein’s anomaly.
It’s a congenital heart defect in which the tricuspid valve, between the two right heart chambers, doesn’t work properly. This causes blood to leak back through the valve, making the heart work less efficiently.
Calvin also had a hole in his heart, which worked to offset some of the effects of the Ebstein’s anomaly.
On New Year’s Eve 2014, Holly and her husband, Josh, had to rush Calvin to the emergency department at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
He had an irregular heartbeat.
Doctors called it supraventricular tachycardia.
Less than an hour later, his tiny heart stopped.
Doctors restored the beat within minutes and placed him on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, commonly known as ECMO, a state-of-the-art heart and lung bypass support machine.
Without help from the machine, Calvin may not have survived.
Holly and Josh knew Calvin would likely need open-heart surgery at some point to repair or replace the valve affected by the Ebstein’s anomaly.
Doctors monitored him closely, but they wanted to wait as long as they could before intervening surgically.
Calvin did well for a few years, until he began having chest pain and feeling fatigued. The right side of his heart also began to expand, so much that his rib cage protruded, Holly said.
This past fall, after extensive testing and consultation, Calvin’s doctors decided the time had come.
The Monroes agreed.
“We were expecting it and so was the family,” Dr. Haw said.
‘Kids are amazing’
The surgery came six days after Calvin’s fifth birthday.
Dr. Haw set out to repair Calvin’s tricuspid valve. This is the preferred treatment for young patients like Calvin, so they don’t have to undergo valve replacements, which have limitations.
It’s a complicated repair because every patient’s anatomy is different, Dr. Haw said.
“Calvin was a little unusual,” Dr. Haw said. “He didn’t have as much of the three leaflets (of the tricuspid valve), so I didn’t have as much valve tissue as usual.”
Still, the doctor successfully completed the repair.
“He’s doing great now,” Dr. Haw said. “And I would expect him to do great indefinitely.
“Kids are amazing,” he said. “Once they’ve recovered, they do very, very well.”
Dr. Haw said he is pleased to be able to offer care for complex congenital heart disease close to home for families like the Monroes, so they don’t have to travel long distances.
Holly is ever grateful, knowing Calvin had been placed in good hands.
“We asked him to treat Calvin like he was his own,” she said.
“We were nervous, but he’s the best,” she said. “I trust that we were at the perfect place for Calvin. I don’t think we would have had the same result somewhere else.”
If you ask Calvin what happened during surgery, he’ll tell you he got an Ironman heart. He went home after seven days in the hospital—seven tough days, for certain.
“When you sit there and he’s like, ‘I want to die,’” Holly said. “It was the worst week of my life.”
Holly recalls a particularly emotional moment when Calvin got a visit from his big brother, Abram.
“Abram said to Calvin, ‘I will die for you,’ and Calvin reached out and held his hand,” Holly said.
She captured a photo of it on her phone.
Calvin missed out on six weeks of kindergarten at Grandville Public Schools, a necessary precaution to ensure he didn’t get sick before surgery and also to give him plenty of time to heal afterward.
His teachers visited him at home once a week. Friends and family, too, gathered around the Monroes. They provided meals and watched after the other two children, Abram, 6, and Ginny, 3.
At a Halloween morning follow-up, Calvin got an excellent report.
“He’s healing well,” Dr. Ratnasamy said. “It’s a good repair for now. We probably will need to do something down the road, but hopefully not for many, many years.”
Holly took great comfort in those words. It all validated her decision to let Calvin’s surgery proceed.
“I want him to be able to run and play and participate in things,” she said. “He’s stronger than we could ever have known.”