Heather and Adam Plues kissed their 1-year-old son Walker goodbye. Carefully, Joseph Tobias of University Hospital lifted Walker from his mother’s arms and walked him toward the operating room. Before he left, Heather moved forward and tearfully gave her only son another kiss.
This was the second open-heart surgery for young Walker Plues. The first procedure came just a week after he was born.
It was only hours following Walker’s birth on March 8, 2005, that doctors at Boone Hospital told Heather and Adam Plues that something was wrong with their son’s heart. They explained that Walker had a heart condition that was restricting blood to the lower half of his body. Doctors knew Walker needed open-heart surgery.
Heather, in an interview published earlier, explained her feelings on that day: “You just don’t expect to hear that. You always think you can beat the odds. When you hear that there is a possibility that your child won’t live, it’s just so hard to even fathom.”
After a transfer to University Hospital, doctors concluded that Walker had a congenital heart defect known as an interrupted aortic arch, which is when part of the aorta is absent, leaving an obstruction of blood to the lower half of the body. This can lead to difficulty breathing and kidney failure.
One week later, doctors wheeled Walker into an operating room for the tedious procedure. A team of surgeons, led by Pierantonio Russo, spent six hours working to attach together two separated areas of Walker’s aorta. The surgery was a success, and Walker spent four weeks recovering in the hospital. Two months later, Walker was off all medicine and was living like any other baby.
Heather and Adam took Walker’s early education seriously. They bought a series of Baby Einstein brand books, toys and videos to prompt Walker’s early mental growth. Heather and Adam would read to their son daily, especially his favorite farm animal pop-up book, “Millie Moo.” In the bathtub, Walker always played with his favorite yellow rubber duckie, which would eventually inspire his first word, “Duck.”
Although Walker was off medicine, his ordeal was far from over. He still had an upcoming surgery to repair a hole in his heart — known as a ventricular septal defect — that accompanies an interrupted aortic arch.
The Plues’ anxiously prepared for Walker’s surgery. They talked to their physicians and surgeons to better understand what was going to happen in the operating room. Both parents could easily recite the details of the surgery. If the procedure went well, Walker should never have to endure another.
In the weeks before surgery, Walker underwent checkups, blood tests and a CT scan to assure that his aorta was in good enough shape for surgery. Although Walker’s aorta was in excellent condition, the surgery was postponed for three weeks because Walker had a slight chest cold.
On the morning of April 14, Walker’s surgery began.
In the operating room, all was quiet except the hissing and beeping of machinery and the occasional low-toned discussion among the team of doctors, led by Russo, who orchestrated Walker’s first surgery.
In the waiting room, Adam anxiously checked the hospital-issued pager for any sign of news. Heather’s parents and sister came to the hospital to comfort the family. The group watched a few DVDs on a laptop, but their worried and fatigued faces showed that their thoughts were elsewhere.
“You never know how your life will change,” Adam said, glancing at the small black pager in his hand. “Two years ago at this time, we were on vacation.”
About 5 p.m., the Plues’ received word that Walker was finished with surgery and would be moved to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.
In the small room, Walker lay sedated on the white sheets of the small bed, an array of tubes protruding from his tiny body. His parents watched their son in a quiet state of love, concern, hope and fear. Heather held Walker’s tiny hand.
Heather and Adam stayed at the hospital together for the first few nights. As time went on, they would switch, but one of them was always there. Walker was expected to make a full recovery and be released within 10 days. They both took time off work to be close to their son during the pivotal days of post-surgery recovery.
At first Walker’s recovery was going well; he was awake and his condition was improving. The following week, however, his condition deteriorated. Walker’s breathing became irregular, and he was put on a ventilator. His stomach began filling up with fluids that eventually leaked into his chest. Walker’s surgery wound became infected.
“We were kind of blind-sided with the whole situation,” Heather said. “You never really think it’s going to happen.”
Doctors responded to the crisis by putting Walker on a special catheter to drain the fluid from his chest. On April 26, doctors had to return Walker to an operating room to open his chest and clean out the affected area. The crisis momentarily waned as Walker stabilized.
Then Walker’s abdomen filled with fluids again. Doctors prepared for another surgery to clean the wound; only this time it would not require opening Walker’s chest but just a cleaning of the skin.
“I started crying,” Adam said upon hearing about Walker’s condition. “I didn’t think he was going to make it after that.”
On May 1, doctors cleaned Walker’s wound.
The next day, Walker’s situation worsened a final time. Doctors called Adam and Heather during their lunch at the hospital. Their son’s aorta, which had been fixed over a year before, had three small breaks. And more internal problems arose.
“I was in a state of denial,” Heather said. “I kept thinking we were still going to bring Walker home.”
At 6:15 p.m. on Tuesday, May 2, 2006, Walker Pierce Plues died in University Hospital.
The next Saturday, Adam and Heather held services at Memorial Funeral Home, with more than 200 mourners supporting the family.
“We were overwhelmed, in a good way,” Heather said. “People really reached out to us.”
During the service, Adam and Heather read a final letter to Walker. “We will miss you every day ... We will always love you,” Adam read aloud, tears streaming down his face.
After the crowd filed out, Adam and Heather stood alone by Walker’s open casket. They touched his lifeless hand and cried together.
“I just can’t believe he’s gone,” Adam later said.
The Plues set up a donation fund in Walker’s name for the American Heart Association , and they hope their personal tragedy will help the community better recognize the dangers of congenital heart defects.
“We can’t bring Walker back,” Heather said. “If there is anything we can do, it’s help other kids.”
According to the American Heart Association, eight of 1,000 newborn babies suffer from some sort of congenital heart defect, and it is the No. 1 cause of death from birth defects during the first year of life. The cause of most congenital heart defects — structural problems in the heart that are present at birth — is unknown.
Adam and Heather will miss the little things about their son the most.
“I had a smile on my face every time I was around him,” Adam said. “He was one of those babies full of expressions, even at an early age.”
Their favorite times with Walker include bathing him and taking him for walks. “I would walk so I could see him in his stroller,” Adam said. “It was funny, he had a smile on the whole time.”