After several hours operating on the smallest of hearts, Dr. Redmond Burke threw on a blue suit coat over his green scrubs and hustled out to the courtyard at Miami Children’s Hospital. He and his comrade-in-sutures, Dr. Robert Hannan, had important guests to attend to: dozens of kids whose lives they saved over the years.
It was an, ahem, heartwarming scene as, amid handshakes, handslaps and hugs, Burke and Hannan posed for photos and videos with former patients and their forever-grateful parents. They came together under a tent for the hospital’s annual President’s Day reunion of cardiac patients and their surgeons, nurses and ICU docs.
“This doctor is the best and he’s a great human being, also,’’ said Janet Cuervo, who choked back tears as she embraced Burke and recalled the delicate operation eight years ago in which he closed a hole in her daughter Camila’s heart.
Now 14, Camila is a cheerleader and eighth-grader at Mater Gardens Academy in Miami Gardens and leads a fully normal teenage life. Like many of the now older kids at the reunion, she said she barely recalls the life-saving but traumatic surgery, probably not a bad thing.
For every one of the parents, though, it was something they cannot forget.
“This man is going to hold your child’s heart in his hands,’’ said Nancy Lasater, who said she researched Burke thoroughly before concluding he was the best for the job of repairing her daughter Kelsey’s congenital heart defect a decade ago — not just because of his expertise, but because he was warm and approachable and, as a windsurfer and father of three girls, personally well-rounded. “You could tell he was special. He put you at ease. He’s saved so many children’s lives, it’s incredible.’’
After driving down from home in Palm Beach Gardens, Lasater, Kelsey and her two brothers joined a long line of people waiting happily to spend a few minutes with Burke, who eagerly knelt down to greet kids and pose for pictures. Kelsey, now 15, gave Burke an envelope with a thank-you note inside.
“Isn’t this nice?’’ Burke, the hospital’s director of pediatric cardiovascular surgery, said to another young one-time patient. “Everybody’s smiling. There’s no stress.’’
Burke, well known in the field for minimizing trauma to children by devising instruments and procedures that allow complex operations with minimal invasiveness, said the reunion is part of the hospital’s continuum of care.
“Once the parents trust their kids to us, we feel responsible for the duration of their lifetimes,’’ Burke said. “It’s a real touchstone in their lives. We want to reduce that lifelong trauma, and not just for the patients but for their parents and their brothers and sisters. We want them to know we will be here for them.’’
In fact, some young cardiac patients will require lifelong follow-up, including those with artificial heart valves, which must be replaced as the child grows, and last only 10 years. The hospital has opened an adult cardiac surgical unit to follow those patients for life.
A few feet away, Litzandra Hernandez waited with her grandparents, Lydia and Tomas Cabrera, for Dr. Hannan to come out of surgery. Though she’s 20, Hernandez is a very recent Hannan patient.
She was a “blue baby,’’ born in Cuba with a rare confluence of heart malformations — a ventricular hole, a blocked valve and transposed arteries — that interfered with blood circulation, kept her blood oxygen levels low and gave her skin a tell-tale purple tinge. But she went untreated, severely limited in what she could do and at constant risk of heart failure, until she left Cuba in August to join her mother in Miami. Doctors in Cuba said she would live only a few more years without surgery they could not perform, the Cabreras said.
Because hers was a birth defect and she is medically and legally still a child, her adult cardiologist at Aventura Hospital, Robert Cubeddu, referred her to Hannan. In January, she had a risky surgery that’s usually performed on infants to create a bypass that allows blood to flow normally.
On Monday, an ebullient Hernandez, her skin a healthy hue, along with her grandparents, surrounded a smiling Hannan.
“He said he would treat me like his daughter, and he did,’’ she said. “And now I am super well.’’