Born with An Always Fatal Heart Problem, Chris Wall Is One for the Medical Books at 3½
Christopher Wall Jr. came into the world three years ago with one of the rarest of birth defects: His heart was outside his body (PEOPLE, Sept. 22, 1975). Approximately 200 such cases, called ectopia cordis, have been recorded in medical annals, and no one so extremely afflicted as Chris has survived more than a few days. No one, that is, until now.
With the ceaseless efforts of physicians at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and the round-the-clock devotion of his parents, little Chris is making medical history daily. His doctor, Robert Kettrick, now declares for the first time that the boy "has a good chance of leading a completely productive life."
The struggle has not been easy for him or anyone else. Born without a sternum (breastbone) to support the rib cage that normally encases the heart, Chris underwent 15 critical operations in his first 18 months. All were, in the officialese of the O.R., "life-threatening." Though surgeons succeeded in covering his exposed heart with a protective layer of skin, all attempts to implant an artificial sternum failed. So Chris must still wear a special plastic chest protector to shield him from injury. "It would be dangerous for him to be bruised in that area," explains Dr. Kettrick, associate director of the pediatric intensive care unit at Children's Hospital. "A slap to the chest, for example, could compromise the coronary artery."
Chris left the hospital for home for the first time last fall and now spends his time exploring the family's compact frame house in Audubon Park, N.J. Because he still can't breathe normally, he is tethered by a long hose to a machine called a ventilator that pumps oxygen into his trachea. Six times daily his parents must "physio" him—drain mucus from his lungs with a siphon, cleanse his throat and check for infection with a stethoscope. Cost of machine rental and home care runs $50,000 a year, and the family depends upon assistance from the state Crippled Children's Program. His father, Chris Sr., 27, was unemployed when the boy was born, but now, as a detective with the Camden County prosecutor's office, earns $13,800. His mother, Teresa, 23, worked as a bank clerk before Chris came home.
By necessity, all family activity revolves around the child. "There were times when we almost thought we were going crazy," admits his dad. For example, one parent must awaken at 4 a.m. to make sure Chris is breathing comfortably. Still, Chris Sr. doesn't think his son should be overly pampered. "He's a rugged little kid, in spite of his problems. He falls and trips and bumps his head just like any other kid. I don't want to put restraints on him," Dad adds. "He's had enough frustrations in his life." Among his joys is a "peke-a-poo" dog (a cross between a Pekingese and a poodle) who seems to sense the child's vulnerability and is very gentle with him.
Gradually, Chris is being weaned off the ventilator, allowing him brief outings for rides and visits. "It's the most exciting thing for him, the wind in his hair, everything," says his dad. "We've been asked, 'What if he dies?' Well," responds Chris Sr., "he's lived three good years. He's touched so many people that he's already accomplished a great deal in his life. We've learned so much from Christopher—patience, love of life. Every day we're with him is a thrill."
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