In April 2020, just a few weeks into the COVID pandemic, Amy Wardwell’s family took a break from a day of virtual learning to get outside for some fresh air. It was unseasonably warm, Amy recalls, and her two boys, Quinn and Alex, were wearing shorts and t-shirts as they played basketball in the driveway with their father, Duncan. Amy took the dog for a walk.
A few minutes down the street, Amy heard sirens. “I remember watching an ambulance speed by,” she says.
Her 16-year-old son, Quinn, had collapsed in the driveway and was unresponsive. Alex called 911 and Duncan desperately began CPR.
Stabilized in the Emergency Department at the University of Vermont Medical Center, Quinn was transferred to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) at UVM Children’s Hospital. His collapse was due to a previously unknown heart condition, an arrhythmia, which prevented his heart from pumping blood to the rest of his organs, including his brain. He had needed to be resuscitated to regain a steady heart rhythm.
“It was 100 percent out of the blue,” says Amy. “He has always been an active, athletic kid – couldn’t sit still and watch TV,” says Amy. “For this to happen to him, we were stunned. There were no warning signs.”
While much remained unknown in the hours immediately after he collapsed, one thing was for certain: Quinn’s high school athletic career was over. For an athletic junior in high school, it was the most devastating thing he could hear. “When I left the room, my son was sobbing,” says Amy.
Jonathan Flyer, MD, a pediatric cardiologist at UVM Children’s Hospital, stayed with Quinn to talk through the diagnosis. They played Nerf basketball from the bedside, and he offered to introduce Quinn to an older gentleman, a career fighter pilot, who experienced trauma with a similar heart issue, but moved on to live a full life.
“When I returned an hour later, [Quinn] was calm,” says Amy. “Dr. Flyer gave him hope, without sugarcoating it. He said ‘I’m not going to tell you you’re perfect and okay, but I’m going to give you something to hold onto.’ That moment has stuck with me this past year.”
“As much as Dr. Flyer has been Quinn’s cardiologist, he’s been his counselor,” she says.
Especially in the pediatric environment, care extends beyond clinical expertise to emotional support, of the patient and the whole family. “Family-centered care is the hallmark of UVM Children’s Hospital,” says Dr. Flyer. That means considering a family’s unique needs, from how appointments are made to how furniture is arranged in the exam rooms.
Amy remembers the way the nursing staff connected with her to answer her questions and ease her fears. “They were taking care of us as much as they were taking care of Quinn,” she says. “They made sure to check in on me and explained his care in an honest and transparent way, without being alarming.”
The Wardwells are thankful they had expert pediatric cardiac care close to home. “We’re grateful for the expertise here, in adult cardiology, intensive care and children’s cardiology. Their ability to care for patients in a really human, compassionate way has been the most important thing for us.”
For Dr. Flyer, it’s pretty simple: “A 16-year-old needs to shoot hoops on the back of the door and meet a fighter pilot to find some comfort, not carry the weight of a diagnosis.”