The first time Chaplain Steve came to CHOC Children’s, he had just found out his daughter Catie needed an emergency neurosurgery. Now, he’s back for good― as the newest chaplain on CHOC’s spiritual care team.
Ever since pre-school, Catie had experienced difficulties with body awareness, some motor skills, coordination, attentiveness in school and other challenges that didn’t seem to fit her developmental stage.
For five years, Steve and his wife Claudia explored everything: psychiatry, ophthalmology, behavior modification, medication, coaching, neurofeedback and more. Finally, when she was 8 years old they advocated for a referral to a pediatric neurologist, rule out the possibility that there was something wrong with her brain. Even though Catie didn’t show any of the physical symptoms typically associated with a mass in her brain, such as headaches, seizures, fainting or major motor problems, their neurologist ordered an MRI just to be safe.
After five years of trying new therapies and hitting dead ends, Steve and Claudia didn’t know what to expect from Catie’s MRI results, or if they were finally about to get answers.
Catie’s scans revealed that she had a large arachnoid cyst in her brain. The fluid-filled sac measured 10 centimeters, about the size of a baseball.
“I was in shock” Steve says of the moment his wife called him with the results. “I remember exactly where I was and exactly what I was doing at that time. I remember begging my wife, “Please tell me you’re kidding. Please tell me you’re kidding.”
“He told us that this was serious, but that they were going to take care of it right away,” Steve recalls. “He explained very clearly what he was going to do to drain the cyst and how he was going to do it.”
Steve and Claudia didn’t understand how a cyst could have been growing for years inside her skull undetected.
“Although Catie hadn’t yet shown physical side effects, she inevitably would have begun to decompensate, which would’ve greatly increased her risk of injury,” said Dr. Loudon.
Since Catie is the oldest child in her family and the first to undergo a major surgery, her parents were naturally worried, about everything from anesthesia to recovery
“Dr. Loudon told us that he would care for our daughter as if she were his own child,” Steve says. “Since working at CHOC, I’ve heard him tell other families in the emergency department the same thing. I know that he means it every time.”
Dr. Loudon performed a series of surgeries to open the cyst and allow it to drain internally, a procedure known as endoscopic cyst fenestration. He made a small cut in her skull and then punctured a tiny hole on either side of the cyst to allow the fluid to drain internally over a period of time.
Dr. Loudon’s commitment to Catie’s safety was deeply appreciated by her parents.
“I saw the way his team acted, and how they interacted with my daughter,” Steve recalls. “Dr. Loudon takes his job very seriously and he goes after the problem. We knew she was in good hands.”
With every hospital stay, Steve found that his own natural instinct was to offer support to other parents, whether it be in the waiting room or the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU). By this point, Steve had been a chaplain in a hospice setting for six years.
“Even while we were the ones receiving care, my first reaction was always to rush to other families in need, but since I was there as a parent, there was only so much I could do,” he says.
Now that Chaplain Steve has officially joined the spiritual care team at CHOC, he is able to offer spiritual and emotional support to patients and families.
“I have my own beliefs and faith traditions, but these come secondary to what a family needs in a time of crisis,” Steve says.
Today, Catie is a high school student who loves science, space and kids. She hasn’t been hospitalized since her last surgery, although a few years ago she came back to CHOC with a broken foot that she got “pretending to be a ninja,” as her dad says. She still treasures the Choco bear that she received when she was a patient, but sometimes loans him to her little brother if he’s feeling under the weather.
We participate in CHOC Walk in the Park in honor of our son, Jaxson, who died in 2012 at 4-years-old following a drowning accident at a neighbor’s pool party. Jax was transferred to CHOC Children’s Hospital from another hospital, and the CHOC staff spent the next three hours doing everything they could to save our boy. The grace, compassion and solace that the CHOC staff showed us left an overwhelming mark on my wife and I. We lost our boy, but it was if they lost him with us.
We walk in Jax’s memory. It’s a way to honor his life and the way he touched so many people in his short time with us, all the while helping to raise money for the hospital. We first started walking in 2012, just a few months after Jax passed away. A friend of mine worked at Disneyland and had worked on the event before, and mentioned it to me. I don’t think we signed up until about six weeks before the event, and we just figured our family and maybe a handful of friends would join us. We ended up with over 75 team members and raised more than $10,000.
I’ll always remember that first year. There were so many emotions – we were in the thick of grieving, the rush of scrambling to get a team together in such a short time – but we felt a sense of pride on how we honored our sweet boy.
We are most inspired by the compassion and grace that the CHOC staff showed to our family. That is what we will always remember.
By Alexandria Salahshour, CHOC parent and mom of Andre, four months
This story is about my son who got sick with Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) at three weeks old and was hospitalized at six weeks. I’m sharing our story so other parents are aware of the dangers of RSV and know what to look for. It’s important to always follow your own instincts no matter what. YOU know what’s best for your child. You are your child’s voice.
What is RSV?
RSV is a highly dangerous respiratory infection. It can be a potentially deadly virus if not taken care of in time. Most children will catch RSV by their second birthday, but the younger they are, the worse it can be. RSV is primarily spread through child care centers and preschools due to being in close proximity to many children. For most children, RSV will cause nothing more than common cold-type symptoms, but for some children like my son Andre, it can lead to more serious life-threatening problems such as bronchiolitis, pneumonia, collapsed lungs, respiratory failure, airway inflammation and even death.
The early signs of RSV
This roller coaster started when Andre was three weeks old. Before Andre was born, I made everyone in my family get the whooping cough vaccine along with the flu shot if they planned on touching Andre. Paranoid? No. Proactive? Yes. When Andre came it was so exciting! It was the best day of our lives.
Though we allowed people to hold the baby, I would always say “Don’t forget to wash your hands first.” After Andre got sick, I realized that the REAL questions I should’ve been asking were “Are you sick? Have you recently had a cold? Are your children sick? Are people at your work sick? Are children you are around sick?”
When Andre got sick with RSV, it came as a shock. How did he get so sick so fast? I had a healthy pregnancy, and Andre was born healthy. At three weeks old, he became congested and his breathing sounded off. It wasn’t wheezing, but more like a grunting sound. The morning after he started showing symptoms, we brought him to his pediatrician. I brought recorded videos of Andre’s breathing so the doctor could hear the congestion and grunting.
Our pediatrician didn’t think there was anything going on. He advised us to run the humidifier and to use saline drops. He thought Andre would be just fine, but told us to come back if he got worse, or got a fever with wheezing. Andre never ran a fever. We did the saline drops and humidifier, but it didn’t seem to be getting any better.
That night after our first pediatrician appointment while Andre was sleeping, we had noticed that would choke on his phlegm, be uncomfortable and would occasionally stop breathing. We continued to follow our pediatrician’s recommendation of using the humidifier and saline drops, but it wasn’t helping. I knew that there was something more serious going on.
A few days later, Andre started to wheeze and have breathing problems in his sleep. We rushed him to the hospital where I had delivered him. It was scary to be there because we didn’t know what was wrong with our baby. I had never heard of RSV before, but when I researched his symptoms it kept coming up. The doctor tested Andre for RSV and it came back positive. We were discharged with the same instructions his pediatrician had given, and told to come back if it got worse.
A couple of days went by, and Andre wasn’t getting any better. We took him back to the pediatrician for an after-hours appointment. He was their first RSV patient of the season. The pediatrician let us know that RSV is like a roller coaster, especially in someone so young like Andre. We were once again told to use saline drops, a humidifier and aspirations, but Andre continued to get worse.
Caring for a sick baby during the holidays
At this point the holidays were right around the corner, and my family had arrived from Dubai. This vacation meant the world to me, but unfortunately, it was short-lived. As soon as my uncle held Andre for the first time, he could tell something was seriously wrong. He felt vibration sounds through Andre’s back, almost as if whatever he had was in his lungs.
Suddenly, Andre took a turn for the worse. He was starting to sleep a lot more and just seemed so “out of it.” We decided to take Andre back to the hospital. We took him to the closest hospital to where we were at the time. I told the nurse that Andre was diagnosed with RSV about a week ago, and we were told he would get better, but that he was getting worse. I told him that his retractions were so bad you could see his ribs, and that he was congested, looked like he couldn’t breathe, and had been choking on his phlegm. The doctor said he no longer had the virus and that he may have caught a different virus that was causing this to happen. Even though his retractions and wheezing were so bad, she didn’t see it as anything alarming. They did an X-ray to be sure to make sure it wasn’t pneumonia, and thank God it wasn’t
The next day I saw that Andre’s hands were pale and extremely clammy. Even his lips looked somewhat discolored. I didn’t want anyone to think I was crazy or a hypochondriac, especially because every time we went to the doctor for this virus, we were sent home and told it would get better.
The nightmare begins
Two days before Christmas, our nightmare really began. We woke up in the morning and it was as if Andre had somehow taken another turn for his worse. He seemed so out of it, wasn’t eating well, and had zero interest in breastfeeding. Andre stayed asleep a majority of the day, and didn’t have as many wet diapers as he normally did. By the end of the day he looked beyond lethargic, and almost lifeless.
I did more research about RSV and found that a baby should have 50-60 breaths per minute. Andre was only at 40 breaths per minute. We called the after-hours number for our pediatrician, which is initially probably what saved my son’s life. They immediately connected us with the on-call doctor: Dr. Barbara Petty, a CHOC Children’s pediatrician.
I didn’t know this pediatrician at the time, but I’ve told myself that one day I’ll make an appointment with her just to thank her. She got on the phone and was so kind and soft-spoken, she seemed so concerned and you could tell that she probably has the most incredible bed side manner. She was giving us the most information we have heard thus far. Luckily, while on the phone with Dr. Petty, she was able to listen to Andre, heard the way he sounded and listened to how much he was struggling.
She told us that we needed to get to the hospital right away. We let the doctor know that we’ve already gone to two different hospitals, and she told us that we should take him to CHOC Children’s at Mission Hospital. When we got off the phone with her we couldn’t thank her enough. That phone call will forever mean the world to me.
I remember it was raining that night. We quickly rushed out of the house and went to CHOC at Mission. It was a busy night in the emergency department and there were doctors and nurses everywhere. Our nurse checked Andre’s oxygen levels and found it was only at 70. A healthy, full-term baby’s level should be closer to 100!
The doctor came in looked at Andre and just kept saying everything was going to be alright and that they were going to take care of him. He told us that it was good we brought him in because his oxygen was so low. They gave Andre an IV, hooked him up to a heart monitor, and gave him oxygen. It was incredible how quickly a team can work to get a baby stable.
A diagnosis at last
He tested positive for RSV again, but he was also diagnosed with bronchiolitis, rhinovirus and respiratory failure. Finally, Andre was in a relaxing state hooked up to the monitors, oxygen, IV fluids and tons of steroids. When the doctor came in and let us know what was going on, he said that because Andre was so young he needed help breathing to fight off this virus. The doctor admitted Andre into the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) so that they could keep a close watch on him. When we got into our room, three nurses immediately came in to help care for our baby boy.
Celebrating Christmas at CHOC
The next day was Christmas Eve, our first Christmas as a family, and we were still in the hospital. It was sad being in the PICU and seeing our son struggle in the state that he was in, but we knew Andre was in the BEST place he could be and getting the best care.
Thankfully, Christmas Eve was special at CHOC. A dog named Piper from their pet therapy program visited all the children. We woke up in the PICU on Christmas morning and there was a big bag full of presents for Andre. The tag read “To: Andre, From: Santa.” It was the kindest thing I’ve ever seen.
Though we were in the PICU, CHOC did an incredible job at making a not-so-normal Christmas feel normal. We were so thankful for CHOC and all of the wonderful donated presents from incredible people. Andre got so many toys for Christmas! Because of these kind people, this became a Christmas we will never forget and forever be SO thankful for. It still brings tears to my eyes every time I think about our experience at CHOC Children’s.
When the nurses came in on Christmas, they told us that Andre was doing better and we could start the process of slowly weaning him off the oxygen. His oxygen level was stable, his heart was stable and his retractions were better. It was so nice to see improvements on our little guy!
The next day he tolerated more weaning, and we got to leave the PICU for a room in the regular pediatrics unit. GREAT NEWS! He continued to improve as the days went by. A new doctor came in to give us a run down on what was going on and gave us so much helpful information.
He explained that this virus usually comes from day cares, preschools, and school-aged children and then it’s quickly passed on to others. He let us know that this virus is a roller coaster; it gets bad and then gets better, it gets bad and then it gets better. There’s really no way of telling you when the virus will expel from the baby’s body, especially when they are so young. The doctor told us because he’s so young, the virus can last in his system up to a month!
Bring our boy home
Andre was still doing great and had life back in him. He even smiled for the first time! It was so special and it was the sweetest smile I’ve ever seen. I’ll never forget it. His care team was continuing to wean him off oxygen.
As they got closer to letting him breathe on his own, I was so nervous since that would decide if we got to go home or not. The night went by and our little champion did amazing! I was scared to bring him home but the nurses and doctors knew best, and I knew I had to learn to trust their decision since they’re professionals Before we were discharged, the nurses came in and asked us if we had any questions. They let us know that if Andre started to decline, to come back right away. The hospital was great. They had an incredible staff and we were treated so well! When we left, they gave us a few extra pacifiers, a bunch of swaddles, a nice blanket with bears on it, and a pack of diapers. It was nice to have stuff to go home with in case we were out of anything.
Thankful for CHOC
I can never thank the staff at CHOC at Mission enough for taking care of Andre the way that they did. They made us feel like we were at home, even though we weren’t. Everyone was so comforting and understanding. If we ever have another emergency, which hopefully we will not, we’ll be returning to this hospital.
I hope that no one else’s child has to go through what our baby went through. But just in case, parents should know the symptoms of RSV, be prepared and trust your instincts.
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Happy Thanksgiving! My name is Karen Stapleton, and my son Noah is a patient at CHOC Children’s. As I prepare to celebrate the holidays with my family, I’m grateful we can be together since we have so much to celebrate. I’m also grateful for Noah’s many doctors and nurses at CHOC because without them, my son wouldn’t be alive.
Noah’s birth story
When I was 29 weeks pregnant with Noah, we learned that he had Down syndrome. Another prenatal ultrasound showed an abnormality in his heart, and we were referred to Dr. Pierangelo Renella, a pediatric cardiologist at CHOC, who diagnosed Noah with tetralogy of fallot, a serious heart defect that causes poor oxygenated blood flow from the heart to the rest of the body. I was scared, but having been a CHOC patient myself as a child, I knew my son would be in good hands.
On July 27 of last year our lives changed forever— Noah was born! I chose to deliver at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange so that my son could be as close to CHOC as possible. When he was born, there were so many doctors and nurses around. I saw Noah quickly enough to give him a kiss before he was whisked away to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at CHOC.
Shortly after birth, Noah’s care team also diagnosed him with Apert syndrome, a rare genetic form of craniosynostosis, the early fusion of skull bones. Noah’s toes and fingers were partially fused together as well.
It was a success, and 31 days after he was born, Noah finally came home! Weekly trips back to CHOC’s clinics included visits to gastroenterology, pulmonary, cardiology and craniofacial specialists. It was another team effort to prepare Noah for a second open heart surgery that he would eventually need.
But a few weeks later, Noah had respiratory complications, which lead to an emergency open heart surgery at just 2 ½ months old. Thanks to Noah’s cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr. Richard Gates, and Noah’s fighting spirit, he was able to come home shortly after surgery.
Celebrating Christmas at CHOC
Just days before Christmas last year, Noah had to be admitted to CHOC for respiratory failure. It was scary to see my baby sedated for 19 days. Dr. Juliette Hunt, a critical care specialist, recommended that Noah undergo a tracheostomy, where a small opening is made in his windpipe and a tube is inserted to help him breathe. Making a decision like that is hard and scary for a mom, but I had complete trust in Noah’s team, and if they knew it would help Noah breathe easier, then I knew it was the right thing to do.
After that, Noah started to thrive. He gained weight and became strong enough for his next open heart surgery with Dr. Gates. After a mere six days in the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit following this surgery, Noah got to come home again!
Even when Noah is doing well, sometimes it can be scary to care for him when he’s at home. During one of our hospital stays, I confided this fear in one of Noah’s favorite nurses, Karissa. She gave me specific tips on what to do during his tummy time and baths, and gave me the courage to care for my son. She encouraged me, and reminded me that CHOC wouldn’t advise me to do anything that wasn’t safe.
Noah’s first birthday
All of this is a lot for a little baby to go through before his first birthday, but Noah has always surprised us and pulled through. Celebrating his first birthday meant more than celebrating his first year of life; it meant celebrating every fight Noah had won over the last year, and it meant appreciating a milestone that at times we thought we might never reach. We decided a super hero theme was perfect for his party because we think of Noah as our little super hero.
After his birthday, Noah continued to flourish and grow! He started rolling over and actively playing, and he has not stopped smiling.
This progress allowed us to prepare for his next major surgery, a frontal orbital advancement, to reshape his skull and forehead that has fused too early due to Apert syndrome.
Before surgery could begin, the doctors needed to cut Noah’s hair to make a safe incision in his skull. We marked another one of Noah’s milestones at CHOC— his first haircut!
Noah has more hurdles and additional surgeries ahead of him, but even with how much he’s fought, he continues to smile. He’s not cranky and he doesn’t cry. He’s enjoying every single day he gets to be here – and that’s the life he has taught me to live too.
If Noah’s care team ever needs a reminder of why they do what you do, I tell them: My son would not be here today if it were not for each and every one of them here at CHOC. And for that, my family will be forever grateful.
Every year, more than 800 CHOC Children’s volunteers provide nearly 100,000 hours of service. They pursue volunteerism for different reasons, but they all donate their time to help CHOC provide the very best pediatric services in Orange County. Some are retired community members looking to give back, and others, like Brianna, come in as high school students seeking new experiences.
Brianna started volunteering at CHOC when she was just 16 years old. She needed to complete volunteer hours as part of a school project and having grown up in Orange, she thought CHOC would be a worthy place to donate her time. Back then, she didn’t know what her eventual career path would look like. Due to her customer service experience as well as her bubbly and warm personality, she was placed as a customer service ambassador. That placement would eventually inspire her to become a registered nurse at CHOC.
“We could tell she loved working with kids and families,” says Sandra Schultz, customer service manager at CHOC. “She was a comforting presence in what can be a scary and stressful time. Her good energy was contagious, and she loved our mission statement- to nurture, advance and protect the health and well-being of children.”
She was tasked with enhancing the CHOC patient experience by visiting patients and families to welcome them upon admittance and ensure that their non-medical needs were being met. If a need were identified, she helped facilitate a solution by providing time-sensitive and compassionate communications with the appropriate CHOC department.
Sometimes the opportunity to help a family was as small as getting a parent a glass of water.
“As a nurse now, I know that it’s the little things that matter,” Brianna says.
Her ambassador role allowed to her see a variety of environments in the hospital, which sparked her interest in nursing, particularly the pediatric intensive care unit.
“It was the most complex I’d ever seen medicine before,” she says. “But I felt like those kids were the ones I was supposed to be with, the kids who were having some of the hardest days of their entire lives.”
As a volunteer, Brianna was an avid learner and wanted to learn about every department inside the hospital. That passion for learning helped propel her through challenging coursework in nursing school, and eased her transition from volunteer to nurse when she came back to CHOC.
During stressful moments in a crucial unit of the hospital, Brianna relies on lessons she learned during her customer service volunteer days at CHOC.
“It’s important to be able to take a step back mentally when things get stressful. I’ve learned to remember where we are, what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” she says.
Even after she transitioned into a nursing role, Brianna remains a part of the customer service family at CHOC. Her former colleagues-turned lifelong friends surprised her in the PICU on her birthday with a card and gift, and they celebrated her nursing school graduation right alongside her family. Every year the group reunites to participate in CHOC Walk in the Park.