Strength and courage: Kaidence Gleason has a heart of gold
Family experiences hope, love and care from many
When one thinks of strength and courage the images of soldiers facing the battle or firefighters rushing into a burning building come to mind.
The thought of a three-foot tall, 29-pound little girl probably doesn’t show up on that radar.
But when you factor in three other ingredients — hope, love and care — you’ve got a recipe for a happy ending.
Such was the case for Kaidence Gleason, the daughter of Mandi Featherstone and Forrest Gleason.
Strength and courage were the needed tonic that helped the New Richmond family through an ordeal they wouldn’t wish on anyone.
The challenges they faced for several months came earlier this year when one-year-old Kaidence, who at the time seemed normal, was found to have Atrial septal defect (ASD) — better known as hole(s) in the heart.
That diagnosis of holes in her heart came after Westfields Hospital & Clinic in New Richmond brought a new pediatrician on board.
“When we went in for the checkup, the pediatrician didn’t like what she heard when she listened to Kaidence’s heart,” Mandi said. “She said [the clinic] had to put in a call to Children’s Hospital in St. Paul. I asked whether it was like making a call and an appointment in a week or so and she said no. They needed to see her sooner than that. In fact, by the time I got home from Westfields, they had already called and made the appointment. It all happened really fast.”
That surprising news and seeming urgency of the situation was alarming for Mandi.
“There were no symptoms. That was the surprising part,” Mandi said. “A lot of the kids [who have ASD] tire quickly, have respiratory illnesses and take a long time to recover from sickness. Kaidence was really never sick … she was hard to keep warm, but other than that, she was normal.”
When the diagnosis of holes in Kaidence’s heart was made, there was hope because ASD is not uncommon in children.
What was unusual? The size and the number of the holes in her heart.
“The holes were abnormally big,” Mandi said. “They weren’t textbook .. but the hope was that it would heal some by itself.”
The more it healed, the better chance that a catheter surgery would work.
Kaidence’s condition wasn’t life threatening at that point, so it was decided to monitor her growth and see if there was some self-healing.
But that didn’t seem to be the case.
“It came down to a decision [when Kaidence turned three],” Mandi said. “Nothing had changed, but the heart was actually showing signs of working harder and showing signs of enlarging.”
The lungs would have been affected next.
So the decision for Mandi and Forrest came down to trying the catheter surgery, which had a 30 percent chance of success, or open heart surgery.
The difficult decision by the parents was made this past March to move ahead with the open heart surgery.
“It was Feb. 29, and Forrest and I were sitting here and I said that we had to make a decision,” Mandi said. “He simply said that it was clear what we had to do.”
While open heart surgery was considered when Kaidence was as young as two, one of the advantages in waiting until she was older was that she could take instructions for care better after the surgery. She would understand her limitations.
“So I made the appointment for March 28 — my mother-in-law’s birthday,” Mandi said. “I hung up the phone [after making the appointment] with the biggest ‘oh my god, did I make the right decision’ moment. But I decided to leave it to God to make it all come together. Everything worked. We set up the pre-op appointment and went with it. March 28 came and everything went so well with the surgery at Children’s.”
The surgeon had met with the parents prior to the operation and described how he would make the repair to Kaidence’s heart. He gave two case scenarios and said he would have to see which one would work the best.
However, when he got into the procedure he discovered he had to improvise.
“When he got in there, neither of the options [he described prior to the surgery] would work, so he did a whole different thing — he ‘MacGyvered’ it,” Mandi said. “The plan was to use another part of Kaidence’s heart and sew it in. Instead he ended up sewing the walls to one another. The one hole was so big it was like two holes in one.”
The surgery, which could have taken double-digit hours, was finished in less than four.
Kaidence went into surgery at just before 8 a.m.
“At 10:50 I posted on Caring Bridge that her heart was beating on its own and all was well. When [the doctor] came out, he told us that all went well … he left, I cried and prayed, and posted on Caring Bridge,” Mandi said.
Not only did the procedure go well, but so did Kaidence’s recovery. By day four, she had progressed to the point where she was ready to go home. Doctors expected her stay to be seven to 10 days.
“Every single thing they wanted her to do — she met and exceeded every single goal,” Mandi said. “She bounced back that fast.”
And while the family wanted to keep what they had experienced personal, it was the outpouring of support that helped them in the long run.
“When this started, we didn’t tell anyone. We were in denial. I was scared if I said it out loud people would ask questions that I didn’t have the answers for,” Mandi said. “But I am very spiritual and left it in God’s hands.”
Through that spiritual experience, Kaidence and her family also found the love of the spirit in the form of neighbors and friends who reached out to help when they found out what had happened.
From a golf tournament that was held by Forrest’s employer, Tjader & Highstrom Utility Services owners Don and Lori Stephens, to a gofundme.com account and many other donations from those they knew and many they didn’t know — the family was incredulous, but very thankful for the thoughts, prayers and monetery support they received.
“One day I got a notification that we received $2,000 on gofundme.com in one day … it turned out that it was the Stephens’ who personally donated $2,000,” Mandi said. “Their company then followed with a donation of $1,000. They also donated more than $1,400 [from the golf tournament] on top of the money they gave.
“I thought the more people thinking about her would get [God’s] attention, so I wanted people to pray for her. I also wanted to have others be able to see how things turned out for us. It was picture perfect. I know that someone else can read [about it] and sleep better that night or help them make a decision. The love support, thoughts and prayers this tiny person has brought to the table … were from few who have ever met her. I really believe that after all this is said and done and if somebody can be helped by this .... there has to be somebody who will be helped.”
The experience has also had an effect on the family.
“It’s done something for our whole family that I can’t explain. It’s totally different. For me internally, all I care about is this [home] and all that affects it. I don’t have the space for the negativity. With all that’s happening in this world, if I can help someone at home … whoever it is … to reach out to the community … just to bring some light and happiness and to give back.
“There are so many who ask us how we got through it … it’s not about handling it. You can’t have a plan … you survive every minute and that adds to every hour, every week, every month.”
And that brings us back to strength and courage, hope, love and care.