CHOC Family Honors their Little Hero through the CHOC Walk

For more than a decade, the Gomez family has held a special place in their hearts for the CHOC Walk in the Park. The beloved event is a particularly special time every year to honor their son, Robby Gomez.

Robby was born in 2001 at a local hospital with a rare form of laryngomalacia, a congenital condition where floppy tissue above the vocal cords falls into the airway opening when an infant breathes in, causing restriction of the airway.

Upon learning about his condition, their baby boy was quickly rushed to CHOC Children’s, where he was admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), and underwent several surgeries, including a tracheotomy, a procedure that opens up the windpipe (trachea) to allow a breathing tube to be inserted to provide an airway.

After a few weeks in the NICU, Robby was finally released to go home. He would occasionally go back to CHOC for care, but otherwise Robby led a typical life with little to no restrictions. As he grew, he was an active, vivacious little boy who participated in sports, played and jumped around like most children.

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Robby “Batman” Gomez

Tragically in 2006, at age 5, Robby died unexpectedly in his sleep from complications of his condition.

“Robby was an amazing and loving boy, whose strength and positive energy was infectious,” says Robby’s dad, Marty.

Marty and his wife, Julie, knew they had to find a way to give back to CHOC, since CHOC had been there for Robby and their family every step of the way.

“We’ll always be grateful to CHOC. The level of care and compassion that we received was extraordinary and we’re so thankful for the five years CHOC gave us with our son,” Julie says.

When Julie heard about the CHOC Walk, she knew she had to get involved. She formed team Robby “Batman” Gomez  in honor of Robby, whose favorite super hero was Batman. The team started off with just a few members – Julie, who is team captain, her mom, and two of Julie’s best friends.

Today, Team Robby “Batman” Gomez has around 30 members, and is one of the top CHOC Walk teams, having raised over $100,000 benefiting CHOC. This year alone, the team has already raised more than $15,000.

“We’re happy to do anything we can for CHOC. The CHOC Walk is such a special, unique opportunity that touches so many lives in our community. You can see the overwhelming compassion of everyone there, whether they are honoring a current patient or a child who has passed on,” Julie explains.

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Robby “Batman” Gomez

Julie and her friends and family have also held several community fundraisers benefitting CHOC over the years, including car washes, restaurant give backs, and most recently a golf tournament.

The Gomez family, including Robby’s brother and sister, Matthew and Emily, and their friends will always enjoy sharing their little “hero’s” story, especially around CHOC Walk time.

“Robby is our angel. He’s our guiding light, a beacon of goodness, and has forever left an impact on the lives he touched,” Julie says.

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An Opportunity to Touch Lives Through Knowledge, Compassion

Maureen Garrett, a charge nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at CHOC Children’s at Mission Hospital, believes she gains as much from her patients and families as they do from her.

“I have learned about courage, strength, resilience, love and joy by sharing in their hospital experience,” she says. “I love seeing a family grow from the overwhelming fear they first experience with an unexpected, premature birth to a confident, competent mother and father taking their newborn home.”

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Maureen, a registered nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit at CHOC Mission.

As CHOC Mission celebrates its 25th anniversary this month, Maureen is among a special group of employees who have been with the hospital since day one. She joined the CHOC Children’s health system in 1991, when she was hired to help open CHOC Mission.

Opened in 1993, the children’s hospital operates on the fifth floor of Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo. The 54-bed hospital is the only dedicated facility for pediatrics in south Orange County, surrounding coastal areas and north San Diego County.

Through the years, Maureen has served in several capacities at CHOC Mission and has witnessed much evolution inside the hospital – most notably, she says, the hospital’s family – centered-care philosophy.

“The most significant change has been the dramatic shift to family-centered care where families really are viewed as part of the team, and hospital operations are designed to empower parents and facilitate their involvement in their child’s hospitalization,” Maureen says.

Maureen initially pursued a career in health care because she wanted to help others, and create a work-family balance.

“I love the opportunity to touch people’s lives through both knowledge and compassion,” she says. “In nursing, there are so many opportunities and so much flexibility. I knew it would be the kind of career that would allow me to be a parent but still allow me to grow professionally and be challenged always.”

Maureen’s enthusiasm for CHOC Mission extends far beyond mere professional pride: Her own two daughters received care in the hospital’s NICU, her own unit.

Shortly after the hospital’s founding, Maureen’s eldest daughter was born in 1994 at 32 weeks gestation and spent about a month in the NICU.

Maureen’s second daughter, just like her older sister six years before her, also arrived early, at 32 weeks gestation. She stayed in the NICU for about three weeks.

“I had trust in everybody here,” Maureen said. “I knew it was a good staff. If your baby ended up the NICU, where would you want them? I’d want her here. I had an intimate relationship with the people caring for them because I worked there.”

The experience of being a parent in the NICU influenced Maureen’s work moving forward.

“You think when you work in any area that you have a decent perspective, but once you walk it yourself, it does make you more sensitive,” she says.

Maureen knows firsthand how important having a nearby high-quality children’s hospital is for the community. And while CHOC Mission and its staff are celebrating a quarter century of serving south Orange County and beyond, no one is resting on their laurels.

“I hope that CHOC Mission will continue to grow in size and services as the community around it continues to grow,” she says. “I hope we will have a more active role in health and wellness promotion in addition to providing services for those affected by illness.”

Learn more about CHOC Children's at Mission Hospital

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Keeping it in the Family: Why a Disneyland Resort Cast Member Joined the CHOC Walk

For Andrew Geis, participating in the annual CHOC Walk in the Park is only natural.

After all, Andrew credits CHOC Children’s with saving his daughter’s life, and the annual fundraiser takes place throughout his office – the Disneyland Resort.

Cumulatively, the Disneyland Resort has been CHOC’s largest corporate donor over the past 25 years, and the annual CHOC Walk in the Park is the hospital’s largest fundraiser, raising more than $32 million to date.

“I feel a sense of pride that an organization I’ve been with for 17 years has such a strong relationship with CHOC, which has done so much for my family,” says Andrew, who is part of the Disneyland Resort’s catering and convention services team. “The CHOC Walk is a small way that we give back and recognize the incredible care that we had at CHOC.”

Many Disneyland Resort cast members who have been personally impacted by CHOC participate every year. Last year, the Disney VoluntEARS walk team raised more than $90,000 for the hospital.

The Geis family’s relationship with CHOC began even before baby Sawyer was born. Imaging conducted while she was in utero revealed two possible heart defects, the severity of which wouldn’t be known until she was born.

The family started planning, and immediately after her birth, Sawyer was transferred to CHOC’s neonatal intensive care unit. There, further testing revealed a constricted aorta; an atrial septal defect (ASD), or a hole between the top chambers of her heart; and a ventricular septal defect (VSD), or a hole between the heart’s lower chambers.

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Andrew and his wife Michelle with their daughter Sawyer shortly after she was born.

Sawyer would need surgery – and she’d need it quickly, specialists told Andrew.

“I don’t think you’re actually ever prepared to hear that when your child is less than 24 hours old,” he says. “It was like a kick to the heart.”

Within days, Sawyer underwent surgery to repair the defects. Dr. Richard Gates, co-medical director of the CHOC Children’s Heart Institute, and Dr. Joanne Starr, medical director of cardiothoracic surgery at CHOC, fixed the constriction in her aorta, partially closed the ASD, and placed a band around Sawyer’s pulmonary artery to equalize pressure in the two sides of her heart and force the blood to flow to the lower half of the body.

While the surgery was a success, recovery in the cardiovascular intensive care unit was tough. There, Sawyer had an irregular heartbeat, which required the activation of an external pacemaker. Then, she also developed a blood clot. That same day, Sawyer experienced a three-minute seizure.

The clot and seizures were successfully mitigated, and a CT scan following the seizure showed no signs of a stroke or blain bleed. But Sawyer remained in the CVICU healing, growing and learning to eat on her own for several weeks.

During her stay, Andrew and his wife, Michelle, took shifts, alternating who stayed with Sawyer and who went home to their 5-year-old daughter, Parker. When Parker came to the hospital to visit, CHOC staff made a point to connect with her and ensure her needs were also met, Andrew recalls.

“My wife and I felt very strongly that it wasn’t only about the care Sawyer received, but that the entire family was taken care of,” he says. “That level of compassion and total family care was evident in all interactions with team members of CHOC.”

And finally, after 32 days, a 1-month old Sawyer headed home to join her family.

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After spending just over the first month of her life at CHOC Children’s, Sawyer was finally able to go home.

During their time at CHOC Children’s Hospital, the Geis family became increasingly aware of the long relationship between the heath system and Disney, from Walt Disney’s early fundraising efforts before the hospital was built to the Disneyland Resort’s $5 million gift toward construction of the new Bill Holmes Tower, which houses the interactive “Turtle Talk with Crush” show donated by Walt Disney Imagineering.

“I certainly enjoy working for Disney and all that it represents, and knowing that Disney is affiliated with CHOC Children’s, which did so much for my family when we were in a medical crisis – I think is a unique blend,” Andrew says.

Just after Sawyer’s first birthday, the family participated in its first CHOC Walk, now a family tradition that will continue at this year’s walk. “Team Sawyer” will strut proudly on Aug. 26, joined by its spunky and sassy, 3-year-old namesake, who knows exactly why they walk.

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The Geis family, including Team Sawyer’s namesake, at CHOC Walk 2017.

“Sawyer will point to her scar and she’ll say, ‘Tell me about my scar,’” Andrew says. “We’ll talk about her heart and what was wrong with it and what had to be done with it. ‘Who was with me in the hospital?’ she’ll ask, and we’ll tell her, ‘We were all with you in the hospital.’”

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CHOC Resident Follows in His Father’s Footsteps

Growing up, Tim Hicks fondly remembers seeing his dad come home from work with a smile. Despite his demanding job as physician, his dad, David, always remained positive and shared countless rewarding stories that he witnessed at the hospital.

It was that unwavering dedication that inspired Tim, now a second-year pediatric resident at CHOC Children’s and UC Irvine, to pursue a career in medicine.

“Seeing how happy my dad has been, I wanted to be part of that,” he says.

As long as he can remember, Tim was interested in medicine. He was a curious child and enjoyed science and studying about the human body.

Similarly, his dad, Dr. David Hicks, a pulmonologist and neonatologist at CHOC for more than 40 years, had always been interested in medicine as well. David wanted to become a veterinarian initially, like his father, but eventually went to medical school.

During his long and successful tenure at CHOC, David has enjoyed seeing the hospital’s growth and working alongside such a compassionate and dedicated team.

“What’s most inspiring at CHOC is the desire of our nurses and doctors to treat their patients as if they were their own. That, and when I see the smiles on the parents’ faces when their kids get better, is what inspires me to continue to do this,” says the 74-year-old physician.

It’s that same drive that motivates Tim to follow in his dad’s footsteps. His goal is to become a pediatrician, and he is also exploring a possible subspecialty.

“I really enjoy treating and hanging out with kids. They manage to smile even in a very difficult time. Their light-heartedness and innocent outlook is refreshing in many ways,” Tim says.

Tim’s relationship with CHOC goes back even further, however. His dad recalls the time when Tim, a teen then, was admitted to CHOC to be treated for a splenic fracture.

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Dr. Hicks with his son Tim at his white coat ceremony, where residents receive their white coats for the first time.

“Little did we know then that he would be back as a pediatric resident one day,” David says. “It was a few scary days in the PICU. Moments like that teach you that life is precious and things can change very quickly.”

Today, as a resident at CHOC, Tim enjoys meeting colleagues who have worked with his dad. He’s even had the privilege of meeting some of his dad’s former patients.

“We’ve definitely had fun, interesting conversations at the dinner table,” Tim says. “He’s given me great advice and taught me to treat the patient as a person; that it’s important to take care of their unique, individual needs with care and compassion.”

Tim also appreciates his dad’s outlook on the importance of a work-life balance, something he witnessed first-hand growing up. Despite his busy schedule, David always made time for things like attending his kids’ sports games, Tim remembers.

“I’ve always told my kids to find what they really love and follow that path,” David says. “And that family is very important. I owe everything to my wife, Gayle, who has taken on 50 percent of the battle, always supporting me and raising our four wonderful children.”

As Father’s Day nears, Tim – or “Hicks 2.0,” as he jokingly refers to himself – couldn’t be prouder to follow his dad’s path.

“My dad is an incredible role model and friend. I’m not only thankful for his guidance in life but also in medicine,” he says.

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Microcephaly and Encephalocele: Michelle’s Story

By Allyson Duran, mother of CHOC patient Michelle

When I was 21 weeks pregnant with our little girl, my fiancé and I received devastating news. Michelle’s head was not measuring large enough for how far along I was in my pregnancy. We were scared and didn’t know what this would mean for our little girl. My OB-GYN referred us to a high-risk maternal-fetal specialist, where we received a shocking diagnosis: our baby had microcephaly, a rare condition where a child’s brain does not fully develop, resulting in an abnormally small head size. They also diagnosed her with another condition called encephalocele, where brain tissue protrudes out to the skin from an abnormal opening in the skull. Although very rare – only 340 babies in the U.S. are born with this each year- this is one of the most common neural tube defects, a birth defect involving incomplete development of the brain and spinal cord.

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During the rest of my pregnancy it was a little emotional because we didn’t know if Michelle would survive the pregnancy or even worse, pass away shortly after birth. We didn’t know if she would come out breathing or what to expect. I had ultrasounds every week to monitor the growth of the encephalocele. When I was six months pregnant, my high-risk OB-GYN sent me to meet with Dr. Michael Muhonen, a pediatric neurosurgeon at CHOC. I didn’t know what to expect, but I couldn’t handle any more bad news. He told me the mass growing outside of her brain could either be tissue or fluid, but they wouldn’t be able to tell for sure until after she was born.

He told us that the prenatal ultrasounds showed a giant encephalocele with severe concerning brain anomalies. I was terrified about what was going to happen to my baby, but I felt reassured that she would be in good hands.

Michelle was born October 10, 2016 at 10:34 a.m. at University of California, Irvine. She thankfully came out breathing on her own, and my fiancé and I were an emotional wreck. I couldn’t hold her or kiss her right away because she was whisked away to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Four long hours later, I was finally able to see her and give her a kiss, but I couldn’t hold her yet.

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Dr. Muhonen came to UCI to see Michelle and review her MRI so they could get a better idea of what was inside her encephalocele. While we waited for the results in the NICU, Michelle stopped breathing right in front of our eyes. The NICU nurses rushed to her aide and resuscitated her. She started breathing again on her own, but I can’t begin to describe how scary those two minutes were. My heart broke and fell into my stomach. At two days old, her condition was declining, but I knew in my heart that she was going to be ok.

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After that, a nurse approached us and handed us a little sack and said, “Someone who heard about your situation wanted to give this to you and remain anonymous.” As we opened the little sack we pulled out a key that said HOPE on it. I broke down in happy tears.

Michelle’s MRI results came back literally seconds later. Dr. Muhonen said that he had never seen an encephalocele this big before, but that it was mostly made up of brain fluid, and he was confident that he could successfully operate on her. Later that day, Michelle was transferred via ambulance to CHOC, where she would be prepped for surgery.

The next day, we put our three-day-old baby in the hands of Dr. Muhonen and prayed that her surgery would go well. Three hours later, he came out of the operating room to where we had been anxiously waiting in the lobby, and told us that the surgery gone well.

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“We were able to successfully put the exposed brain back into the skull and remove the outer sac of the encephalocele. The post-operative results were superb, and Michelle had no difficulties with the complicated surgery,” Dr. Muhonen told us.

Michelle stayed at CHOC in the NICU for three weeks to recover and get strong enough to finally go home. During that time, my fiancé and I stayed just down the street at Ronald McDonald House. When our baby was hospitalized, we were grateful to have an incredible team of nurses caring for her. This was my first baby and I had never been through anything like this before, and Michelle’s nurses were very patient with me and explained everything. They taught me things like how to feed her. They spent so much time with her and knew tiny little nuances about her. They were there to help and support not only their patient, but her parents as well.

Our favorite nurse, Maria, told me that one of her favorite parts of being a NICU nurse is empowering parents so that they can eventually play the role of their baby’s biggest advocate.

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Michelle’s favorite nurse, Maria, feeding her a bottle in the NICU.

For a while, we had weekly appointments with Dr. Muhonen to monitor the shunt (a device that relieves pressure on the brain) he implanted a few months after surgery. During surgery. Michelle was doing so well that our appointments were changed to once every three months!

Dr. Muhonen told us, “While Michelle is still growing, and has challenges ahead, I am optimistic that she will love and enjoy life, bring joy to her family, and will always be an inspiration to others.”

Today, Michelle is a happy baby. We are busy with physical therapy, occupational therapy, and infant stimulation appointments, but Michelle laughs and smiles all the time. She loves when people pretend to sneeze. She loves to jump. She is trying to walk, but she doesn’t like to crawl.

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Earlier this year, we participated in CHOC Walk in the Park in honor of our daughter, and to show our support for the wonderful neurosurgeon and all the other CHOC staff members who helped save her life! We are forever grateful and feel blessed for this wonderful hospital for keeping our family whole.

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Learn more about neurosurgery at CHOC

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