It is my pleasure to introduce one of my dearest friends, Debbie Leahy, as Smarty Mom this week! Debbie is a native Charlottean. She is married to Jim and they have three beautiful daughters. Sarah and Caroline are three years old and Ellen is now 7 months old. Debbie and I met through CMOMs and it turns out we had a lot in common! Our twins were born on the same day. We go to the same OB/GYN office, her doctor ended up assisting my doctor with my c-section and then left to go deliver Debbie’s girls. Small world…. Her girls and my boys ended up in preschool together so Debbie and I were able to hang out a lot. We’ve had playdates, met at the Old Georgetown pool over the summers and have shared several bottles of wine, especially if someone’s hubby has been out of town and some adult interaction is needed! What’s even crazier is that we both lived in California. It turns out that we lived a mile or two from each other. We figured out that we had even joined the same wine club. By the way, the vineyard is called Viansa and it rocks! Check it out. Anyway, a lot of coincidences have been uncovered.
Through the last few years, I have seen Debbie in action. She soared through her first pregnancy without a hitch and delivered two healthy beautiful girls. I have always admired her calm demeanor and the patience she has with her children. Debbie then became pregnant with Ellen. So happy for them, but sad my vino friend would be on sabbatical for several months. Again, Debbie sails through without a problem. Not only does she look great but she is hauling two 2 year olds around like it is nothing. By the way, Debbie’s husband Jim is like 6’5” and her girls are 100% on the growth charts so this is no small feat!
So here is Ellen, a gorgeous little baby. Debbie had mentioned the heart murmur but it didn’t seem to be a big deal at the time. Ellen was doing great and so no need to worry. Then Debbie found out that Ellen would need open heart surgery. I will let her explain in more detail. You will see that Debbie and Jim are two very special people. I could not even imagine the fear and anxiety that they experienced. I remember speaking with Debbie a couple days before the surgery and she was understandably shaken up a bit. On top dealing with the upcoming surgery they were also going through a transition with Jim’s new job that required him to be out of town several days during the week. I know how worked up I got over a tonsillectomy, let alone an open heart surgery! Needless to say, Debbie handled a very difficult situation better than I ever could have imagined. Her story is inspirational and encouraging for anyone dealing with difficult medical situations, especially those seeking out of town medical care. Thanks for sharing your story Debbie. I am so lucky to have you as a friend and you are definitely one Smarty Mama!
Can you tell us a little more about Ellen’s heart surgery?
Ellen was born with a VSD (Ventricular Septal Defect.) This is an opening in the wall (septum) between the right ventricle and the left ventricle. You might hear this type of problem also referred to as a “hole in the heart.” It is the most common type of congenital heart defect, and usually if it is a small hole, will close on its own. We first learned of Ellen’s heart defect the day after she was born. The pediatrician who examined her in the hospital detected a heart murmur, so she was referred to a pediatric cardiologist, who also visited her in the hospital. An echocardiogram revealed the VSD. We took her to several follow-up appointments, as the pediatric cardiologist wanted to monitor this closely. Being optimists, we just assumed it would close on its own, besides, who wants to think about their precious baby undergoing open-heart surgery? Ironically, at the time, I was more concerned about the hemangioma that was growing in her ear, but that’s another topic for another day. When she was 3 months old, the pediatric cardiologist performed another echocardiogram, and told us the bad news. The hole was large and did not appear that it would close on its own, and required surgery. He advised that the best time to do this is between 4 and 6 months old. If left untreated, we were told that she would have a life expectancy of about 40 years, and the last 20 years would not be of high quality, as she would be suffering from congestive heart failure. There was no question of what we had to do.
After researching several options, we decided to take her to Duke University Hospital to have the open-heart surgery, with Dr. Jaggers as the surgeon. We were able to schedule the surgery within a week of the consultation. This was ideal, as we were living in a state of high anxiety every day leading up to the surgery, and just wanted to get her to the other side of this. We were advised by our doctors to expect a 5-7 day hospital stay, and at least 24 hours in the Pediatric Cardiac Intensive Care Unit (PCICU.)
The morning of the surgery I was able to carry Ellen back to the operating room and actually lay her down on the operating table. Once the anesthesiologists took over, I had to leave. She was in surgery for about 4 hours, but it seemed like an eternity. Ellen was a champ, as she did well through the surgery, and was discharged from the PCICU after about 20 hours, and then was released from the hospital just 3 days after the surgery. We did not feel like the staff was rushing us out the door. She was recovering beautifully, and as one doctor advised, “A hospital is a place for sick people, and the only thing that can happen to a healthy person in a hospital if she stays here is to get sick.” I couldn’t agree more and was probably more ecstatic on taking her home that day than the day we left the hospital when she was born!
We are so thankful for all of Ellen’s many doctors and nurses, especially her pediatric cardiologist, Dr. Ohmstede, with Presbyterian Pediatric Cardiology, and all of his wonderful staff. I feel like they were able to get to know Ellen, and spent a lot of time with us explaining details and answering all of our questions. Also, the entire team at Duke was wonderful. We are so lucky to have the modern advances in medicine available to us, and to have such skilled surgeons close by.
What advice or tips would you have for other parents who are considering traveling out of town for their child’s surgery?
1. Prepare your plan. We were extremely fortunate that we had family in the area that was willing to help. My main concern was for Sarah & Caroline, who had just turned 3 years old. We were able to arrange a schedule of several caregivers for them, including grandparents and a couple sets of aunts and uncles and some young cousins. We kept the explanation simple: that Ellen had a boo-boo on her heart, and she needed to go to the doctor for a few days to fix it, and Mommy and Daddy needed to go with her. We had it arranged so that the girls would see at least one of us each day. My sister had also volunteered to keep them for the week after the surgery, so that I could devote 100% of my focus on Ellen once we were home. We told them that they got to go to “Camp Aunt Kathy.” That was wonderful, as I didn’t realize how exhausted I would be after all of this, and I enjoyed taking care of just one baby, something I had never experienced before!
2. Remain flexible with your plan and take up offers for help. We told ourselves and asked others to remain flexible in the arrangements. It took us a few days to figure out our schedule, but you can’t predict in advance how long the hospital stay will actually be. I was amazed at the generosity and willingness of everyone, family and non-family members, to help us out. Sometimes it really does take a village. Many friends offered to help with the twins, cook a meal, get groceries, etc. One of the main risks we faced once Ellen was discharged was infection, so I spent the week at home almost in isolation with her, and took friends and neighbors up on their offers to help with errands.
3. Find a nice, calm person to talk to during the surgery. I was worried about how to spend the time during the surgery in the waiting room. I packed a backpack full of reading material, and the laptop computer, sure to keep myself distracted. I never read any of those magazines, and I think I just sent a couple of e-mails. What saved our sanity during that time in the waiting room was a visit from our sister-in-law who lived in the area. Chatting with her about everything and nothing helped keep us in check. I would highly recommend having a visitor such as this, but only if they have the type of personality that would help you remain calm. We received periodic updates throughout the morning about her surgery. Everything was always progressing normally, but it was difficult to hear the update that she had just been put on the heart-lung machine – you just do not want to think about those types of details!
4. Try to get some rest. If you don’t have family to stay with when at the hospital, there are Ronald McDonald houses near most major medical centers. However, these spaces fill up quickly, and I learned that once the child is discharged from the ICU, you can no longer stay there (at least at Duke’s facility.) When the child is in the ICU, you are allowed to be at their bedside, but you can not sleep there. We were advised to get a good night’s sleep the night that she was in the PCICU, because once she was out on the main floor, we would want to spend the night and be there full-time. The PCICU had a nurse dedicated just to her, so with that level of care and the fact that Ellen looked like she was doing well considering what she just went through, we were very comfortable leaving her there that night. The nurse gave us the direct number so that if we woke up in the middle of the night and just wanted to know how she was doing, we could call (and I did!)
5. Prepare yourself to see other kids in the hospital. It was very sad to see so many babies in the PCICU and on the main floor without parents at their bedside. My husband made a comment out loud about that, and a nurse kindly pointed out that many of these babies are there long-term, and the parents have to go back to work at some point. There were so many children there who had to have multiple surgeries and seeing them really put things in perspective, and made us count our blessings.
6. Prepare your children. We were fortunate that Ellen was only 4 months old when she had this surgery, so we didn’t need to prepare her emotionally. If you have an older child, obviously you would need to explain things on their level. I’m sure Ellen’s big sisters sensed that we were “on edge” even though we tried our hardest to keep our emotions in check around them. They had a few otherwise unexplained potty accidents, and we just had to remember that they needed reassurance as well.
What is your favorite family activity?
We have really enjoyed taking the girls up to the NC Zoo. We had a membership, so we have been several times in the past year. It definitely wears us all out!
What is your favorite place to shop for kids clothing?
As a mom of twins + 1, the CMOMs Sale, of course! I have shopped many other consignment sales, and this is by far the best. The clothes are actually priced to sell, and I can often find them in a pair. I don’t have a budget for boutique clothes, but can often find beautiful second-hand boutique dresses from my fellow CMOMs. I also enjoy outlets such as The Gap and Gymboree.
What is your favorite park in Charlotte?
Freedom Park. I’m a bit nostalgic, as I grew up within walking distance of this park. I love taking the girls there, walking around the lake, having a picnic, or venturing up to the Nature Museum. Also, the toddler playground is completely fenced in, so it makes it a little easier when you have to keep track of more than one child. The equipment is great, however test the slides to make sure that they are not too hot, as they are in direct sunlight.
Best place to eat out with the kids?
Honestly, I don’t really enjoy eating out with the kids on a regular basis, however The Roasting Company on Montford Drive is a good place to go if we do eat out. The girls love chowing down on the drumsticks, and will actually eat some vegetables. After dinner, it’s fun to go over to the Cold Stone Creamery in Park Towne Village and sit outside and listen to the live music on Fridays and Saturdays in the summer.
Your idea of a perfect date night?
Unfortunately, we don’t get too many of these, but I would love to go down to the Epicentre for a movie. Before kids, we enjoyed going to Villa Antonio’s for dinner. Now I really enjoy relaxing at home and enjoying a glass of wine after the kids go to bed.
What is the best kept secret in Charlotte?
My hairstylist, Kim Bowman, owner of Shear Excitement. She has been cutting my hair since 1996, and even when I lived in California, I would come back to her for highlights. Her rates are extremely reasonable, and she has true talent for hair styling. She is a single mom, and has been running her own business for several years. I now take the twins to her, and they love her as well. If you are looking for someone to cut your hair and do a fabulous job without paying the high-end salon prices, then give Kim a call and tell her I sent you. She’s located on Old Pineville Road next to the Woodlawn LYNX station. 704-525-4495.
What is the funniest thing either of your children has ever said to you?
Since the girls are 3, they are at the ripe age of hilarious sayings. I could probably write a book with these if I remembered to write them all down! Just today, I was trying to get Caroline to eat something on her dinner plate. She looked at me very seriously and declared, “But Mommy, if I eat this, then the party in my tummy will be RUINED!” Of course I couldn’t help laughing at her comment, and she never did eat the food!
Another one was last Saturday and I had explained to the girls that we were going to a make-up class for swim lessons. At the end of the class, Sarah said to me, “But Mommy, we didn’t get any makeup!” A true girl!
What is the best birthday party you have given or attended for a child?
I love the low-key backyard birthday parties where the kids can just run around and have fun, so I am jealous of those with birthdays in the warmer months. We have also had a lot of fun at the My Gym birthday parties, and another one with the Little Blue Choo that took everyone for rides around the neighborhood.
What is your favorite thing to do when you have some alone time?
Alone time? Is there such a thing? I really do enjoy the mayhem of 3 little ones, and I just keep reminding myself that I will miss the noise and will have more alone time than I know what to do with when they are all grown up, so find a way to enjoy it now! However, a girls weekend every now and then does make me a better mother and wife once I return, and helps me to keep my sanity in check.
Minivan, SUV or car?
Once we found out that we were expecting our 3rd, we quickly realized that our crossover SUV would not accommodate all the car seats. I now drive a Honda Odyssey, and absolutely love it!
What is the best thing about raising a family in Charlotte?
I’m one of the few native Charlotteans. It has been interesting to watch the growth and development of the city over the years. There is no single “best thing,” yet it is a combination of a lot of little things. I love being close to family. I love the weather. I love how downtown has evolved. I love the friendly southern atmosphere. I love the options for shopping. I love how everyone invites you to go to their church. I love being so close to the beach and the mountains. I love running into other moms at the pajama table at Costco and realizing that somehow you all know each other. I hope we never have to move again!
You could not live without (mommy or kid related)?
Besides my supportive family and friends and morning cup of coffee, the DVR. I never thought I would say this, as I don’t spend a lot of time in front of the TV. However, this $10/month gadget has changed the way I watch television. I think it’s especially a good idea if you have kids, since you can record a show, let them watch it at a reasonable time, and then turn the TV off after it is over.
I wish someone had told me sooner about……
The grocery game: www.thegrocerygame.com. I’ve always clipped coupons, but this website helps you save even more money by publishing a list once a week that matches up the store specials with the coupons. So far I have saved more than I have spent at Harris Teeter for most of the weeks this year. Organizing coupons takes time, but I feel like it is part of my job to save our household money in any way possible. Check out the website for more information!
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