Saturday, October 21, 2017 started the same way every day does in a home with four children, two dogs, and busy parents… we hit the ground running! As it was a regular football weekend for the Stacey family, we had friends in town for a home Razorback game. We got up early to show our friends around Fayetteville before we had a babysitter come to watch our children so we could go tailgate for the first time this season.
Our 7-year-old daughter, Mary Virginia, had been feeling a little under the weather for a day or so, but nothing that was too concerning. She seemed to have a cold, but wasn’t complaining much. She went around town with us that morning like normal–though, looking back, she wasn’t her usual self. While riding in the car, for instance, she was so quiet. Mary Virginia is never quiet. Additionally, she had been invited to a sleepover that night that she had been looking forward to for weeks. When I let her know that I didn’t think she should go, she didn’t even seem to have the energy to care. Since she was such a social butterfly, this was very unusual.
We got back home and set her up in the bed with a cold pack for her head, some orange juice, and the TV remote. She rested off and on, but didn’t seem to need much from us. One of our regular babysitters, Elizabeth, came to stay with Mary Virginia and our youngest child, Jack, while Heath (my husband) and I took Whitman (Mary Virginia’s twin brother) and our oldest child, Annalise, to tailgate and see the Razorbacks play against Auburn. While we were at the game, we checked in regularly with Elizabeth, who told us that Mary Virginia seemed tired, but nothing out of the ordinary.
About halfway through the football game, though, I had a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach that told me I needed to go home and check on Mary Virginia. Given that we live just a few blocks from the stadium, we walked home just after halftime.
When I opened the front door to our house, I saw something I will never forget. Mary Virginia was lying on the floor in the kitchen, and I was not sure if she was even alive. We ran over to her and picked her up, and she was barely responding to us. Her extremities were blue and cool to the touch and she was unbelievably weak. Elizabeth had laid MV down on a chair so that she could go give Jack a bath, and Mary had slid out of the chair and onto the floor. Coming from a physician’s background, serious anxiety set in, for both Heath and me. We knew she needed to get to a hospital right away. Given all the game traffic, we knew that an ambulance would not be able to get to us fast enough, so Heath’s aunts weaved us in and out of game traffic and got us to the emergency room at Washington Regional Medical Center in record time.
WRMC was able to get us to a room very quickly and immediately began running tests to try to figure out what was going on: chest X-ray, head CT, blood cultures, lab draws—honestly, Heath and I thought maybe she just had the flu or was dehydrated and that they would give her some fluids and we would be out of there in no time. This was not the case. The longer we were there, the worse she appeared. After three hours at WRMC, they decided that we needed to go to Little Rock to Arkansas Children’s Hospital. As was our luck that evening, there was a huge storm hitting Arkansas at the exact time that we needed to take a med flight to ACH. Because of that, an ambulance would have to suffice. The driver of the ambulance was able to get us to Little Rock in two hours! What a blessing he was to us to get us there quickly and safely in such terrible weather. Heath had to stay behind with our other three children, but I was able to ride in the ambulance with Mary Virginia.
It only took about an hour once we were at ACH for them to figure out what was going on with our sweet girl— heart failure. They swiftly sent us up to the ICU for admission, and all the while my head was spinning… heart failure?!
The first 48 hours at ACH were full of many different teams of doctors, lots of IVs and medications and nurses, many tears and much anxiety. Just 15 years ago, I was a medical student on the other side of the curtain in this exact same ICU. It was all so overwhelming. As Heath’s parents were able to rush to care for our three healthy children at home, Heath was able to get to Little Rock by Sunday early afternoon, which was such a relief to me. My mother was also able to rush to Little Rock to be with us. We had many friends and family who were able to drop everything to be by our sides in the ICU waiting room. You never realize how important it is to have this village of people to physically and spiritually support you until you are in such an emergency!
The initial diagnosis was acute viral myocarditis— inflammation of the muscles of the heart, which was the result of Mary Virginia’s body’s reaction to a viral infection. Since this was a rare diagnosis, the doctors could not say for sure why or how our daughter ended up in such severe heart failure. However, they were able to give us hope and a treatment plan. The doctors and nurses in the ICU and the Cadriovascular Intensive Care Unit (CVICU) at ACH were beyond amazing.
For about two days, Mary Virginia showed very limited improvement. There were small milestones met, but then setbacks. On Tuesday, just after lunchtime, the priest from our Fayetteville church, Father Jason Tyler, made a visit to the hospital room to offer Mary Virginia the Catholic sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. This sacrament is a series of prayers and anointing with oil that is meant to bring spiritual, and hopefully physical, strength to the seriously ill or dying. Having never been a part of this sacrament before, it was immensely powerful to experience.
Unbelievably, the next morning, Mary Virginia’s heart was almost completely normal! The doctors could not believe she experienced such swift healing, and were amazed at her progress in such a short time. Over the next few days, we were able to wean her off of her heart medications and witness her making a complete recovery!
Although we were thrilled to see that she was healed, the rapidity of her turnaround also brought with it a sense of unease, specifically that maybe this was some other disease process and not a straightforward case of viral myocarditis. The doctors at ACH did the best they could to run every test they could think of to try to come up with a solid diagnosis. At the end of it all, however, we were not able to come up with the “why” or “how.”
Despite this uncertainty, we are just so grateful to have our little blessing back home with us and completely recovered. Having seen her so close to death, it was an unbelievable feeling to come out of that hospital with a newly healthy child. Our feisty 7-year-old earned dozens of Beads of Courage in her time at ACH and was able to walk herself from her room in the CVICU to our car in the parking lot on November 1. Her number one priority from that moment on was figuring out when she was going to be able to get back on her horse and canter around the arena!
We learned so much through this experience and will never again take the health of our children for granted. We had five doctors in our house that day, and not a single one of us realized the severity of Mary Virginia’s condition. We truly believe it was by the grace of God that we did not let our daughter go to sleep that night, and instead realized that she needed a visit to the emergency room. We had never had a child that needed the specialized care of a children’s hospital, but we now realize how very important it is for us to have access to child-centered care close to home. We have become supporters of Arkansas Children’s Hospital and Arkansas Children’s Hospital-Northwest, and we will be forever indebted to the top-notch treatment team that saved our daughter’s life those days in Little Rock. We are so excited to have this caliber of care coming to Northwest Arkansas.
We also learned firsthand the importance of community. Webster’s dictionary defines community as “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.” We are so thankful that thousands of people stood with our family during this time, sharing the common goal of healing for Mary Virginia. The outpouring of support and prayers was what helped us to maintain our strength.
I have often said that, since October 21, I learned two huge lessons through this experience: First, be prepared for anything, because you never know what the day will bring. Second, what’s more important than being a prayerful person is to have a village of people who can pray for you when you are speechless. We will never take either of these things for granted.
To read Mary Virginia’s Caring Bridge site visit www.caringbridge.org/visit/marystacey
To learn more about Arkansas Children’s Hospital-Northwest, please visit www.archildrens.org/about-us/ach-now-and-the-future/arkansas-childrens-northwest-expansion
To learn more about myocarditis, please visit www.myocarditisfoundation.org