By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
In many ways, Lucas Ulrich is a typical 10-year-old. He loves to swim, cook and play video games. He wants to be a scientist when he grows up. He adores his baby brother, Eric Jr., and by all accounts the feeling is mutual.
But Lucas’ life story is hardly typical.
Lucas seemed like a perfectly healthy boy when he arrived in 2005. He had 10 mesmerizingly tiny fingers and toes, a shock of black hair and strong vital signals. His parents – mom Sabrina and dad Nathan – were smitten, and delighted to take home their firstborn child after only one day in the hospital. The next few months were status quo for the family of a newborn: sleepless nights followed by days of bleary-eyed adoration followed by more sleepless nights. Lullabies were sung, first smiles were cherished, countless photos were taken.
At Lucas’ 7-month checkup, his pediatrician detected a heart murmur. This was fairly common, he assured Sabrina, but to be safe it would be best to have Lucas examined by a cardiologist.
When the cardiologist received Lucas’ exam results, he called Sabrina to see if she and her husband could come in the next day to discuss the findings. She wasn’t alarmed; she appreciated his personal approach. Not every doctor invites you to his office to discuss how OK your baby is, she thought. How nice that this one wants to share the good news in person.
Instead, the cardiologist introduced the Ulrichs to medical terminology that sounded like a foreign language.
Something about a valve. Something about a defect. And then, with shattering clarity: open-heart surgery.
This was the moment when Sabrina knew their lives had changed forever.
Lucas’ first open-heart surgery occurred in September 2006. Doctors had a lot to do: fixing problems with ventricles and valves, and closing a hole.
It went as well as could be expected. The emotional toll was high, and the Ulrichs leaned heavily on family and faith. Sabrina strongly advises other families dealing with health crises to rely on their support systems. She couldn’t imagine having managed their ordeal without the help of loved ones.
His second surgery took place in June 2008. After 3-year-old Lucas was settled into recovery post-surgery, Sabrina breathed a sigh of relief and stepped out of the room for a moment. She left her mother by Lucas’ side.
From just outside the room, Sabrina heard her mom utter a guttural wail. She instantly knew something was terribly wrong. Sabrina rushed to Lucas’ bedside and was startled to see a crowd of doctors descend with the same urgency.
She saw defibrillator paddles. Somebody said “Clear.” It happened again. And again. Sabrina whispered desperately to her baby that she loved him, and pleaded with him to stay with her. She didn’t even ask the doctors what was going on because it was clear they were doing their job, which was working feverishly to save his life. And she had to do her job, which was to comfort him.
Amidst the chaos, the doctor who had performed the surgery told Sabrina they needed to rush Lucas back into the operating room. He told her to give the boy a kiss and that he couldn’t predict the outcome. Then Lucas was whisked away.
The following hours were spent in shock and prayer and disbelief. And then came the news: Lucas was stable and back in recovery. Sabrina could go to him. Life would go on.
Recovery from surgery wasn’t easy, nor was it complete. Lucas suffered seizures and other side effects, but his spirits weren’t dampened. He grew, he learned, he played. He began to express some confusion and frustration because other kids could run around outside endlessly while he could not, but his attitude remained bright.
Following a collapse in 2010, a pacemaker was ordered for Lucas. He’ll tell you that this is when he started to become bionic like Iron Man, and his interest in robotics took hold.
In 2012, he endured his third open-heart surgery. Work on his mitral valve did not completely fix his problems, and he’s likely to need a replacement one day. Still, he’s active and able to keep up with most things his peers are doing.
While Lucas’ medical journey continues, he’s determined to help other families who face challenges like his.
He recently participated in AHA’s Jump Rope For Heart campaign through his school, Inca Elementary in Buckeye, Arizona. He also is a member of the Mended Little Hearts organization, where he and other pint-size warriors compare battle scars and share stories.
When asked what advice she would give to other families of children with congenital heart defects, Sabrina said, “Don’t let the condition define the child.”
After all, Lucas is so much more than his scars. He’s a future scientist.
Photos courtesy of Sabrina Ulrich
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