Prince of Hearts

Dr. Michael Teodori holds the hearts of many Valley children - often literally - in his hands

"You have a big strong heart now," Teodori tells him. "You're gonna be able to pee big, and run fast, and have a great time."

"I want to be strong," Xzavion says.

"You're gonna be strong -- and fast," the doctor replies.

Dr. Michael Teodori with heart patient Xzavion Gonzales, July 2002.
Paul Rubin
Dr. Michael Teodori with heart patient Xzavion Gonzales, July 2002.
Samantha Blier consoles her son, Xzavion Gonzales, before his heart operation, as the boy's grandfather, Don Blier, looks on.
Paul Rubin
Samantha Blier consoles her son, Xzavion Gonzales, before his heart operation, as the boy's grandfather, Don Blier, looks on.

Just three days after his surgery, Xzavion is allowed to go home.

Mike Teodori ran over to the pediatric intensive-care unit at Phoenix Children's Hospital on the afternoon of June 19.

A nurse had paged him just as he was about to start his second heart operation of the day: Thirteen-month-old Maya Angeline Robinson was "coding" -- hospital talk for not breathing -- and wasn't responding to resuscitation efforts.

Teodori had performed surgery on Maya the day before, repairing four major congenital defects called tetrology of Fallot. The highly complex five-hour operation went well, and Maya had remained stable for the critical first 24 hours.

Then, suddenly, she'd crashed.

"Nothing seemed to work," says Bynum, the pediatric nurse, her eyes misting at the recollection. "When Mike [Teodori] came into that baby's room, she really was dead."

Hospital personnel spirited Maya's parents, John and Anita Robinson of Surprise, to a nearby room. Teodori and intensive-care Dr. Robert Graham conferred about the extent of possible brain damage Maya might have suffered when her heart stopped.

"That was a heavy concern," Teodori says. "I don't ever want to let someone I operated on die without opening the chest. But even if we could bring her back, was she going to have a mind?"

He soon decided to reopen Maya's sternum and try to jump-start her tiny heart: "She just wasn't responding. I think she really was dead. But I still had this sense that I could do something for her."

He opened Maya up right there in Room Six, and reached into her chest cavity. He then began to massage her heart -- about the size of a small apricot -- with both hands. Teodori detected a scant heartbeat, but it disappeared soon after he stopped massaging her.

Maya's potassium levels continued to shoot skyward, another sign that she wasn't going to make it. Teodori continued to massage the baby's heart on and off, as he called for an ECMO machine.

The ECMO (it stands for Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation) works much like the heart-lung bypass machines used in operating rooms, taking over the work of those organs so they can rest and, hopefully, start to heal. Doctors consider the ECMO a last-ditch effort, to be used only in the most dire of situations.

As he worked on Maya, Teodori asked Dr. Graham to tell the Robinsons that the situation was grim.

"I have to have the parents trust me, good news or bad," Teodori explains. "When I tell them something, I always mean it."

Recalls Maya's mother, Anita Robinson, "After Dr. Graham told us what was happening, I started to think to myself about where we were going to bury her, here or Tucson. Then, I prayed for her."

Her prayer went something like this: "Lord, please take my baby's heart in Your hands and squeeze it. Please make her heart start beating so Dr. Teodori has a chance to work with something."

The ECMO team arrived about an hour after Teodori began to work on Maya. He hooked the machine up to the baby, inserting two plastic tubes, called catheters, into a vein and artery.

Somehow, Maya responded to the ECMO, and her vital signs took a significant -- some would say miraculous -- turn for the better. At 10:30 that night, the Robinsons were allowed to visit their daughter.

No one knew how long Maya would survive her ordeal, or the extent of any irreparable brain damage she'd suffered when her heart had stopped. She'd spend five days on the ECMO before doctors would let her try to breathe on her own, which she did.

On August 17, two months after the closest of calls, doctors allowed the Robinsons to take their baby home. Two days after that, about 20 parents of "heart kids" -- children with congenital cardiac problems -- gathered at Phoenix Children's for their monthly support group.

Anita Robinson arrived a few minutes late. She was toting Maya, who was breathing with the help of oxygen, but seemed alert, animated and a mite fussy.

After a Mexican food dinner, the parents took turns talking about how they and their children have been faring. But when it was Robinson's turn, she said only, "My baby almost died a few months ago, but now she's doing okay."

The room was silent for a moment. Then, Carrie McDevitt, a plucky woman whose 20-month-old daughter, Faith, died last December of heart problems, spoke up.

"That's real good, Anita," McDevitt said, smiling over at her friend. "Can you tell us just a little more?"

That evoked a group chuckle, and a tired smile from Robinson. Many in attendance had rushed to the Robinsons' side in June, when Dr. Teodori literally had taken Maya's life into his own hands.

"Okay, let's see," Robinson responded. "Dr. Teodori saved Maya, and here she is. I thought my world had come to an end when I heard about his car accident. He's our hero. It's just been a long summer. Oh, and I forgot about the flood."

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