Medical miracle: Prayers answered in life-saving operation for LDS couple’s son

Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Credit: Courtesy Peterson Family
Credit: Courtesy Peterson Family
Credit: Courtesy Peterson Family
Credit: Nicole Haley/University of Michigan Health System
Credit: Courtesy Peterson Family

At 24 weeks into her first pregnancy in 2012, Natalie Peterson was excited to be a mother. She went to see her doctor for a routine ultrasound, but something wasn’t right. A doctor explained that the ultrasound indicated her baby had a serious heart defect. Sister Peterson’s heart sank. She was scared, but in the same moment, she felt peace. Her and her husband’s lives were about to change dramatically.

Jake and Natalie Peterson were married in the Salt Lake Temple in 2009. Brother Peterson finished school at Weber State University in 2011 and was accepted to attend optometry school at the Southern College of Optometry in Memphis, Tennessee. At the same time, Sister Peterson announced she was pregnant. They would soon be moving away to pursue their dreams and start a family together.

But that wasn’t to be. An ultrasound revealed heart problems, and further tests confirmed a rare congenital defect called Tetralogy of Fallot with Absent Pulmonary Valve. Doctors explained that it was a rare anomaly (1 in 2,000) and affected the proper development of heart tissue and heart function. To correct the problem, the baby would need surgery after birth. Also, their baby would have trouble with breathing. To what extent, they would need to wait and see.

Sister Peterson said, “Normally, a pregnancy is very exciting because you are anticipating the arrival of a child, but it was hard to be excited. Overall, though, I felt peace.”

Brother Peterson said, “Even after his diagnosis, Natalie and I felt peace. We felt that everything was going to work out.”

With the diagnosis, the doctors told the Petersons they could fix the heart problems but not the airways. The Petersons discussed their options and resolved that they would do everything they could to help their son. There would be some tough decisions to make.

“We decided to contact the Southern College of Optometry and let them know we would be unable to attend,” said Brother Peterson. The school went against its policy and refunded all of their money.

On Sept. 4, 2012, at 11:18 in the morning, Garrett Peterson was born at the University of Utah medical center. The delivery was rough, and his heart rate kept dropping. He was immediately whisked away by doctors and passed through the newborn intensive care unit’s window. The room was silent.

After several hours, the Petersons were allowed to see Garrett for about 30 seconds before he was taken to Primary Children’s Hospital and put on a special ventilator.

“Garrett looked gray and was completely sedated,” said Sister Peterson. “He needed a better ventilator.”

A normal child’s air pathways are firm but flexible. Garrett’s were similar to a wet noodle. Any kind of pressure or stress and the pathways would collapse, suffocating him. He had to be watched constantly. If he started to turn blue, he wasn’t breathing, and he would need help.

With experienced medical staff at Primary Children’s NICU, Garrett was stabilized and able to undergo the heart surgery doctors recommended. With only a 30 percent chance of survival, Garrett pulled through with flying colors. “It was a miracle,” said Brother Peterson.

After surgery, Garrett had good and bad days. He was still having blue spells and a hard time breathing, so the doctors suggested performing a tracheotomy. The Petersons felt good about it, but Garrett struggled for months afterward. However, it turned out it to be the right decision in the long run. The need for inspiration was constant.

For example, one evening Sister Peterson arrived at the hospital’s NICU and was told by a nurse not to go back because Garrett wasn’t doing well. “I got this impression to go back anyway,” said Sister Peterson. So she did. As she got to Garrett’s room, several doctors were struggling to help him breathe. She had an impression to roll him onto his side in a certain position. After a half hour, Garrett stabilized. It worked. “At times, you have to follow inspiration until you find something that works,” said Sister Peterson.

It was about this time that Garrett received a priesthood blessing that specifically addressed his breathing challenges and tissue healing. He was told that he would make a noticeable improvement soon.

And improve he did. Garrett’s non-breathing spells lessened, and he started to do better. But, again, his progress stagnated. The doctors were running out of options.

One day, Sister Peterson came to the NICU to visit and found an article about a child with similar problems who had received a surgery at C.S. Mott’s Children’s Hospital in Michigan that helped tremendously. Sister Peterson felt a strong impression to investigate. She contacted her husband, and he contacted Dr. Glenn Green at the children’s hospital in Michigan.

Dr. Green is a medical doctor and associate professor at the University of Michigan who helped develop a procedure to help children breath. He is also a member of the Church. Brother Green dedicated his entire career to finding a way to help children with air pathway problems. “There were too many families that lost their children,” said Dr. Green. “These families and their children were an inspiration that have driven me forward when it felt like all the time involved just wasn’t worth it. There was a time that I sat down with my wife and told her what I thought we had the potential to do and how much extra time this would take. She has supported me so much through this whole process. Without her help, none of this would be possible.”

The Petersons eventually spoke with Dr. Green, and he told the family he was confident that he could help them.

With the hope of a cure, but faced with several challenges in getting Garrett to the hospital, the timing wasn’t right.

But in July of 2013, the Petersons were able to transfer Garrett to South Davis Community Hospital. Things were stable for a few months, and Garrett started to transition to a home ventilator.

The week after Thanksgiving, Garrett came down with a horrible stomach virus. His health started to plunge.

On a Monday morning in December, the hospital called and told the Petersons to come quickly. They couldn’t get a pulse on Garrett, and his extremities were cold. He was so dehydrated that they couldn’t get an IV in him. They were preparing him for life flight to Primary Children’s Hospital.

When Garrett got to Primary Children’s Hospital, his kidneys were shutting down, and he came within moments of needing dialysis.

Sister Peterson said, “I thought to myself, ‘We’ve come this far, and now Garrett is going to pass away from a stomach virus?’ ”

He was a mess medically, and the virus was causing him to not absorb his medications, causing withdrawal symptoms.

“Whenever I would get down about my situation and feel negative or sad emotions, I would just kneel down and pray,” said Sister Peterson. “I would tell Heavenly Father I didn’t want to feel this way. I would ask Him to grant me peace so I could move forward. And He would grant me peace.”

Garrett was somewhat stable, but there was not much doctors could do. The Petersons felt it was time to reach out to Dr. Green again. They sent him an email explaining the situation, and he responded by telling them he was confident he could get Garrett off his hospital ventilator.

In a matter of weeks, Garrett was on a plane headed to Michigan. The Petersons were caught up in a whirlwind of activity. Moving Garrett to Michigan would require them to move for at least two months while Garrett prepared for, underwent and recovered from surgery.

“When the University of Michigan team arrived, I felt such a great peace and calm come over me,” said Sister Peterson. “I knew this was the right decision. The team was so nice, intelligent and respectful.”

At C.S. Mott’s Children’s Hospital, the staff catered to the Petersons’ every need. Garrett was stabilized, and things began falling into place.

In an act of Christian service, a local Church member in Michigan let the Petersons borrow his brand new car. He brought it over and handed them the keys. “It was such a great example of unselfish sacrifice,” said Sister Peterson. “I don’t know if I could have done that myself.”

Because the procedure was so new and hadn’t been approved by the FDA, splints for some of Garrett’s air passageways had to be created using a 3D printer. This process had been done only once before but never on both airways, such as was the case with Garrett. The team developed a special spiral splint, customized to fit Garrett’s airways perfectly.

Dr. Green said, “For many years, I have prayed for my patients. … I have also prayed specifically for an answer to how to save the lives of these kids that there was no answer for. Although the answers did not come as quickly as I wanted, I think the waiting helped prepare me to recognize a solution.”

On the morning of Jan. 31, 2014, Garrett was taken into surgery. It took nine hours and went well. They placed the splints and attached a new pulmonary valve. When the 3D-printed splint was in place, the lung started to move and became pink.

“Even though Garrett was on such extensive support, including high dose narcotics and sedatives to keep him alive, you could see the sweetness of his spirit,” said Dr. Green. “It is great to see that come out more and more as his body has been weaned from this support. I think this shows the sweetness and exquisiteness that our Heavenly Father recognizes in all of us and that will become apparent after we shed our imperfect bodies and take up perfected bodies in the Resurrection.”

After the surgery, the air pathways were both operating at 100 percent capacity. Brother and Sister Peterson couldn’t believe it. The results were amazing. His medications started to decrease and were no longer needed. His pulmonary valve was working with no leakage.

Over the next month and a half, the Petersons were able to decrease the amount of support on Garrett’s ventilator and transition him to a home ventilator. Garrett never experienced a blue spell again.

On April 1, 2014, Garrett came home for the first time since his birth almost 19 months earlier. The hope now is to get him off of his home ventilator. They are experimenting with 20-minute intervals twice a day.

Brother Peterson said, “I think the hardest thing was trusting in God’s timeline. To Him, it may not have seemed like a long time, but to us, it felt very long.”

“I think Heavenly Father knows our limits, but He tests those limits,” said Sister Peterson. “He asks you to go a bit farther than you think you can. There were times when I told the Lord, ‘I am done. I can’t go any further.’ And then something else would happen to make matters worse. I found I could do it. With God, you can go further.”

Dr. Green said, “I think it is easy for too many people to think that medicine is men acting in the absence of God or even fighting what God intended. Inspiration complements study and hard work. And when we study, we learn based upon the inspiration and hard work of the giants before us. None of what we did would have been possible without hundreds, no thousands of thousands, of previous developments in medicine.”

In Garrett’s priesthood blessing, he was promised several things, some of which seemed impossible at times. However, he was told he would teach others. The procedure he underwent was filmed and will be used to teach medical professionals across the world who will bring hope and healing to families just like the Petersons.

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