- Associated Press - Monday, October 31, 2016

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) - If you look really closely and peer back through the years, you can see that the hale and healthy grown man sitting before you is indeed the same person whose photo appeared in 1969 on a front of the old Journal and Sentinel.

“Yeah, that’s me,” said Tod Duggins, pointing to a copy of the article. “Mom still has the original somewhere.”

What makes an otherwise run-of-the-mill photo remarkable is not the subject as much as what it represents.

The photograph shows a happy, healthy kid shooting baskets with his two older brothers. What it doesn’t show - and couldn’t, not by itself - is the fact that the tousled-haired boy might not have grown into the man in front of you without a revolutionary heart surgery now performed routinely on infants.

The therapeutic effects of the procedure were so profound and so life-changing that Duggins and his family celebrated it as almost a second birthday, a milestone that will be toasted for the 50th time this afternoon.

“I’ve been thinking about this day as it came up,” Duggins said one recent morning over breakfast. “I don’t remember any stressful times or anything like that. I was just 6. But my parents sure do.”

Live normally

Duggins, who’s now 56 and retired after working 32 years for Duke Energy, was born with a condition called Tetralogy of Fallot - a hole in his heart between the right and left ventricles.

Tod, when he was little, would get fatigued really easily,” said Dot Duggins, his mother. “He’d be running and playing, and his lips would turn blue and he’d have to squat to rest.”

Duggins‘ doctors eventually diagnosed the congenital heart condition and told his parents about a new surgery being performed in a few hospitals around the country.

“The surgery hadn’t been out long,” Dot Duggins said. “If he had been born a few years earlier, he wouldn’t have survived.”

When Tod was big enough - 30 pounds - he would be a candidate. Until then, his mother and father would have to keep an eye on the boy and try to limit his activity.

But because he was the youngest of three boys, that was a task easier said than done. They knew that, and made a conscious decision to let Tod live as normally as possible.

“Mom wasn’t going to let it define who I was,” Duggins said. “She wasn’t too overprotective, and I know that had to be hard. She was pretty good about not being too restrictive.”

And so when older boys and the neighbors were playing outside, Tod would be outside, too. They just had to learn patience with the littlest. For example, when he would stop during a football game to rest and catch his breath, Dot Duggins said, the older boys would sometimes grow impatient.

“They’d say ‘Mom, he’s on my team!’” Dot Duggins said. “And I’d have to tell them that he’d get up when he was ready.”

Because Tod was the youngest, it was easier to make the decision to let him be. Anyone with older siblings owes a debt for breaking in new parents.

“Thank goodness he was third,” Dot Duggins said.

Doctor and a friend

As Tod grew toward the magical weight limit - a child at that time needed to be a certain weight in order for life-preserving instruments to be used during the procedure - he paid regular visits to Dr. Ralph Siewers, his local cardiologist.

Tod enjoyed going to see Dr. Siewers because he treated the boy like a friend, not a patient.

“He was just one of those doctors you liked going to see,” Duggins said.

By late summer of 1966, Duggins was approaching the required size. He weighed 26 pounds, small for a normal 6-year-old, but close enough to the size where surgeons felt comfortable to proceed.

They targeted Oct. 19. The surgery would be performed at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, a leading pediatric institution to this day.

But first they had to convince young Tod it was the right thing to do.

Dot Duggins made the wise decision to include her son in the decision-making process and not just dictate the terms to him.

“I’ve never talked to Tod about this, but we decided to have Dr. Siewers write him a letter” explaining the surgery, Dot Duggins said. “He and the doctor were close friends, and we decided a letter written in terms (Tod) could understand was a great idea.”

When the letter arrived, it was addressed to Tod. He could read, but still came to his mother looking for help.

“He came and said ‘Mom, explain this to me,’” Dot Duggins said. “So I told him ‘You’ve said you wanted to ride a bicycle and play a lot longer, so we can fix your heart so you can. He looked at me and said ‘I’m not going to do that.’

“I hadn’t expected that.”

Tod went next door to play with a friend while Dot was thinking about that. The phone rang, and the neighbor asked Dot what was going on because Tod had just matter-of-factly told his playmate that he was going to have his heart fixed.

“That’s when I knew he decided and everything was going to be OK,” she said.

Celebrating as a family

The Duggins left the older boys with a relative and went to Pittsburgh, where the surgery went smoothly.

Within three months, Tod was running and playing as if nothing had ever been wrong. He experienced a few minor side effects but managed to live out a normal, healthy life.

He grew up, married and raised a family. He got a job working for Duke, and stayed there through “32 years and two hips. Through all of it, he always managed to remember his second birthday.

“All those years as a family, Mom and Dad celebrated Oct. 19 every year,” Duggins said. “We’d go out to eat or something. They always made that day special, a family celebration like a birthday.”

This year, the 50th, Duggins decided to go big. He rented out a space at WinMock in Kinderton and invited as many relatives and friends as the place would hold.

Once the party is over, Duggins will continue to honor the day and the work it took to get him to this point. He’s just sorting out his plan, but he would like to find a way to host some sort of annual fundraiser and perhaps volunteer at Brenner Children’s Hospital so he can work with kids just like he once was.

“I have the opportunity now that I’m retired,” Duggins said. “Now I have a chance to give something back. I want to start paying it back a little bit. I’m lucky. Blessed. At any given time God could have stopped (my heart), but he didn’t.”


Information from: Winston-Salem Journal, https://www.journalnow.com

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