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News | Nov. 13, 2018

Noah’s Arc

By Michael Brletich

It was February 1995, and my wife was pregnant with our fourth child while I was serving in the Marine Corps. We were stationed at the ceremonial Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C., when we found ourselves at DeWitt Army Hospital at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, for a not-so-routine ultrasound.

I remember that day like it was yesterday. The head of the Radiology Department, an Army colonel, said to us, "Mr. and Mrs. Brletich, I can't see all of the baby's heart. There are supposed to be four chambers, but I can only see three. I'm not sure what the problem is; it might just be the position of the fetus, so I'm going to refer you to Walter Reed for further evaluation."   

A few days later, we met with an obstetrician at Walter Reed who specialized in "complicated" pregnancies. After a thorough examination of my wife, he reiterated, "I think there's a problem with your pregnancy. I'm not sure, but I think your baby's heart may not be fully developed. I'm going to further refer you to a doctor who specializes in this area at Bethesda Naval Hospital." It was at this point that we became concerned — and for good reason.

Valentine's Day, 1995: a day that would forever change our lives. The head of pediatric cardiology at Bethesda, a Navy captain, performed an "in-utero" echocardiogram of our unborn baby. We were in a darkened room, looking at a high-speed machine that said "Doppler" on it, watching and listening to the heart of our unborn child: "squoosh, squoosh, squoosh." I could feel my own heart beating in my throat. The cardiologist's eyes said it all: There was something wrong. She finished the exam and asked us to meet her in her office.

The captain walked into her office, sat down, and said, "Your son has a congenital heart defect known as tricuspid atresia; he has no right ventricle." My heart dropped from my throat to the pit of my stomach. My wife's eyes welled up with tears. What does that mean to the pregnancy? Would the child survive to birth? And, if so, then what? Was the defect medically correctable? Does this put my wife at risk? Where do we go from here?

The cardiologist took great care in explaining the defect and courses of action for us to consider. We left the hospital and couldn't believe how our lives had changed.   

On May 15, 1995, our fourth son, Noah, was born. Bethesda Naval Hospital believed Fairfax Hospital was best equipped to handle the situation, so that's where we delivered and that's where Noah would go on to have three open-heart surgeries. His first surgery was at two months. The second surgery was at eight months. And the final surgery at 2 ½ years old. This was a tough road to travel. Thankfully, we were in the right place at the right time (Northern Virginia) to deal with such a challenging medical situation.

In 1998, Noah wasn't doing well following his third open-heart surgery. The physicians cautioned that the next step might be to place him on the transplant list. It was at that point that the Make-a-Wish Foundation granted our family an all-expenses-paid trip to Disney World in Orlando: Round-trip train transportation and tickets to Disney, MGM, Universal Studios, the Epcot Center, Sea World, and a host of other places. They paid for a rental van and our accommodations for a week at a magical place called "Give Kids the World," a place for seriously ill kids and their families to stay while at Disney. That week remains one of the most remarkable experiences of our lives.

I'm pleased to report that today Noah is a healthy, hard-working, 23-year-old college graduate pursuing his master’s degree with Arizona State. Some of you have met Noah during my service at DLA. The good Lord and the wonders of modern medicine allow him to live a relatively normal life with a very complicated congenital heart defect. I also want to share with you that our entire experience during that time when Noah was seriously ill would not have been possible without your contributions to the Combined Federal Campaign.  

My family and I have never lost sight of the caring and generosity of these organizations during a very difficult time in our lives. We've all been affected or know someone who has been affected by a serious illness or situation — maybe a family member, perhaps a close friend, someone at church or even a colleague at work. We've all been there or someday will be. Thankfully, organizations supported by the CFC stand ready in our time of need.   

I share Noah’s story to simply ask that in this season of giving, you consider contributing to the charity of your choice in the CFC. Together, we can truly make a difference.