- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 5, 2004

Ron Carreker of Fairfax County began his life thousands of feet above sea level in a medical helicopter en route to Tulane University Hospital in Louisiana.

His life was in danger. The left chambers of his heart were drastically underdeveloped, and doctors told his mother that the infant had only 48 hours to live. Only a three-stage open-heart surgery procedure that has a 50 percent survival rate could save him, they told her.

And it did.

“He was born high, so he might as well fly high forever,” said Demetra Carreker, 33, of her son, who celebrated his fourth birthday in March. The family now lives in Fort Belvoir, Va.

“Whatever he’s gonna be doing, it’s gonna be great,” Mrs. Carreker said.

Today, Ron is learning to walk and talk. The only reminder of his dangerous birth is hidden behind an Ohio State jersey he likes to wear — a scar that runs from his throat down and across his stomach.

Ron suffers from a rare form of heart disease called hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS). His heart has only two functioning chambers — the ones on the right side.

A healthy heart has four chambers that are divided in two. The chambers on the right side pump blood into the lungs, where it is infused with oxygen. The ones on the left take the oxygenated blood and pump it to the rest of the body, keeping it alive.

The emergency three-stage operation, called the Norwood procedure, has kept Ron alive for the past four years. It rerouted the internal construction of his heart so that the right chambers now serve the function of the left, and the oxygenating process happens without any muscle at all.

Even with the surgery, life is not guaranteed.

Cmdr. Daniel Shmorhun, chief pediatric cardiologist at the Bethesda Naval Hospital who has been treating Ron, said children born with HLHS have a survival rate between 50 percent and 75 percent if they undergo the Norwood procedure.

Ron has had a tough year, so far.

In January, his parents took him to a local hospital after his face suddenly turned blue and he wasn’t able to breathe. Doctors still cannot explain why Ron had trouble breathing.

Yet, Mrs. Carreker and her husband, Army Staff Sgt. Johnny Ron Carreker, remain optimistic.

“You know how you always think you’re the exception to the rule, you know how people think that, unwritten?” Mrs. Carreker said. “I think that about mine.”

Two things, in particular, make the Carrekers hopeful.

The first is Dr. Shmorhun.

“I’m a kind of person — I tell by how a person walks how sure are they,” Mrs. Carreker said. “And … he knows that heart, he knows that human heart for that baby.”

When her son was first born, Mrs. Carreker spent hours researching how to keep Ron alive, combing the Internet for answers.

“I was researching on when did they first start realizing babies [were] born like this, who invented the procedure, what was the reason for the babies that had the procedure but still died?” said Mrs. Carreker, who studied botany in college but never completed her degree. “I had to know all of that.”

None of that is necessary now that Ron is under Dr. Shmorhun’s care, she said.

“I was like, ‘OK, We [are] doin’ it now,’” she said. “From then on, I didn’t learn any more.”

The second reason for the couple’s optimism is Ron, who now spends most of his time playing with other children at a day care center on Route 1, about five minutes from his house.

There, Ron greets guests with open arms and a big smile.

The same energy is pooled into games with the two other boys who have spent this summer with him. They tackle each other, wrestling over brightly colored toys that make noise before cooling off and laughing.

At the day care two days ago, Ron sat on a couch next to a boy named Joshua, or Josh-u, as Ron calls him. Joshua pulled up Ron’s Ohio State jersey to show a reporter the boy’s stomach lined with scars. Joshua giggled, pointing to the scars.

The boys’ baby sitter, Elizabeth Tsamah, 34, a Ghanaian immigrant who has taken care of Ron for the past six weeks, stepped in.

No, she told Ron, keep your shirt down. But Ron didn’t seem to care. He just smiled.

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