This story was originally published in Newsday on Oct. 30, 1997.
Matthew Wiedre, a new life in the world barely hours old, was on the brink of death and doctors at the Suffolk County hospital where he was born were unable to save him.
Born in the early morning of Aug. 15, Matthew has been at the center of a medical drama that has played for more than two months and in three hospitals. His story reaches a climax today: Finally, after beating back death, after garnering the title Miracle Baby from his physicians, Matthew goes home to Kings Park to lead what his doctors say should be the life of a normal, healthy boy.
Matthew had what is known as a diaphragmatic hernia. During fetal life, his stomach and intestines migrated upward, putting pressure on his heart, damaging his liver and stunting the growth of his lungs and kidneys. It was a rare quirk of development that went undetected during his mother's pregnancy.
But this isn't just a story of how fast-acting doctors saved an ailing infant. It is one of coincidences, of frightened parents and high technology and how in the end these factors coalesced to outfox fate.
When Joann Wiedre was in the middle of her pregnancy last spring, assured by the sonograms that everything was proceeding normally, Dr. Dennis Davidson, an associate professor of neonatology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, was studying the gas nitric oxide.
In high concentrations, nitric oxide is considered a pollutant, but in small amounts, as is found in normal air, the gas helps the body do its job of dilating blood vessels, accommodating the free flow of blood through the circulatory system.
Davidson is also on the staff of Schneider Children's Hospital of Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park.
As he was studying the gas, his Schneider colleague Dr. Mayer Sagy, chief of pediatric critical care, was unveiling new lifesaving technology, dubbed ECMO, shorthand for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, which takes over the function of vital organs.
The doctors were well aware that diaphragmatic hernia can be a death sentence; little did they know that their paths would soon cross dramatically with Joann and Alan Wiedre and their newborn son Matthew. said yesterday. "He has become part of my life. And to me he is a Miracle Baby because he is alive."
Neither Matthew's parents nor his doctors would identify the hospital where the infant was born. Matthew was rushed from there to University Hospital at Stony Brook shortly after birth. Stony Brook surgeons performed an emergency operation on the hernia, repositioning the intestines and stomach.
But Matthew also had persistent pulmonary hypertension, a potentially fatal condition in which blood pressure into the lungs from the heart is frighteningly high. In adults, pulmonary hypertension is invariably fatal. Infants, however, can recover if caught in time.
To survive, Matthew needed to be treated in a Level 3 neonatal intensive care unit, the highest in the newborn-care hierarchy. The only such unit on Long Island is at Schneider Children's Hospital.
Davidson's nitric oxide research and Sagy's newly initiated ECMO program were exactly what Matthew needed. Looking back at the ambulance trip from Stony Brook to Schneider, Davidson now says it's a miracle Matthew lived long enough to survive the ride.
"When he was born, he didn't have enough lung tissue to adequately oxygenate his blood and that's why he needed to be here," Davidson said.
Through a ventilator, Matthew was given tiny amounts of nitric oxide to stabilize his breathing. But when that proved not to be enough to save the child, Sagy put the baby on ECMO, a machine that takes over the baby's vital functions while fragile organs recover.
ECMO, Sagy said, is a treatment of last resort. There are only three such devices in the state.
"Basically, it keeps the patient alive when the heart, lungs or both cannot maintain the patient's life." Sagy said. "We divert the baby's blood into a special machine where the blood gets tanked up with oxygen and the waste products are removed."
A pump, he said, returns warmed blood back to the baby. This in-and-out circuit of blood flow occurs through catheters: one in the arteries on each side of the infant's neck.
Joann Wiedre, an operations analyst at Long Island Savings Bank, said things happened in such a whirlwind that fear was the only emotion she and her photographer husband felt for weeks.
"This was the most frightening thing that has ever happened to me or my husband. It is really daunting to see your child hooked to so many machines," Wiedre said.
Now that Matthew is going home, the Wiedres face another challenge. Their insurer has put a cap on the number of hours for in-home nursing assistance. Matthew, his mother said, will need round-the-clock monitoring of his blood-oxygen levels.
"We're taking this one day at a time," she said. "But we're glad he's finally coming home."
CORRECTION: A story yesterday about baby Matthew Wiedre incorrectly reported the number of Level 3 neonatal intensive care units on Long Island. In addition to the unit at Schneider Children's Hospital in New Hyde Park, there are Level 3 units at University Hospital at Stony Brook; North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset and Winthrop- University Hospital in Mineola. Schneider Children's Hospital has the only neonatal unit offering a combination of nitric oxide and ECMO therapy for babies in respiratory distress.