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An answer to prayers

Young man saved after a few hospital miracles

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On this Christmas Eve, a story for those who believe there is a God that answers prayers.

And even for those who don't believe.

It begins on a Sunday afternoon late last month in the cardiac care unit of St. Boniface Hospital, where pastor Karen Thiessen was sitting by the bedside of an 18-year-old patient who happened to be her son. Normally, at that time, she would have been home in Abbotsford, B.C., tending to her flock at the Level Ground Mennonite Church. Instead, three days earlier, she flew back to the family's former home in Winnipeg to join her son, Abram, a resident student at the Canadian Mennonite University. He had been rushed to hospital.

Abram's chronically racing heart had decided to take his body on a dangerously high-speed ride. And doctors were trying to slow it.

But at about 2 p.m. on that Sunday, Abram and his heart hit a dead end. And suddenly stopped.

Nearly 3,000 kilometres away, Richard Thiessen was sitting with his two younger sons at a service in his wife's church when he got the call about Abram.

So far away, and not knowing how to help in the moment, Richard gathered his sons, Solomon, 15, and Isaac, 12, round him in his wife's church office.

"I didn't know what to do," he said. "We prayed."

And then Richard caught a plane to Winnipeg.

Meanwhile, doctors and nurses hovered over Abram, trying to save the young man. They were 20 minutes into continuous rounds of compressing his chest before more help arrived. Dr. Shelley Zieroth, a cardiologist on duty, had called in what amounts to the cardiac cavalry in the form of a portable heart-lung machine known by the acronym ECMO.

Karen was watching all this and praying in her own way: "I kept on saying, 'Save my son. Save my son. Save my son.' "

But as the minutes ticked by without a beat -- 20 minutes turned to 30, then 40 -- Karen gradually released Abram to God. "I assumed my son was dead."

And then, after 45 minutes -- after cardiac surgeon Dr. Darren Freed had hooked Abram up to the life-sustaining heart-lung machine -- his heart started again. Karen remembers one doctor weeping.

Their prayers had been answered, but the praying -- and the treatment -- wouldn't stop there.

By Sunday evening, students who were in residence with Abram at CMU had started a prayer vigil. And by Monday afternoon -- when Abram underwent an emergency procedure to cauterize the malfunctioning spot in the heart's electrical wiring that was causing the problem -- the whole campus had gathered to pray.

The doctors and nurses had a different focus. Dr. Aliasghar Khadem and Dr. Alexander Tischenko, the two cardiologists involved, had never done surgery quite like it. Challenge No. 1 was working while Abram remained hooked up to the ECMO machine. Then there was the unusual location of the problem area, low down in the left ventricle.

Karen recalled the words Dr. Khadem later used to describe it.

"He said he went deeper in the heart than he has ever gone."

She would remember many other post-procedure conversations. One was with the imaging technician from out of town who just happened to be in Winnipeg, much the way the ECMO team happened to be there on a Sunday. To the Thiessens, it was as if he and his expertise were heaven-sent.

Which, in a way, is what the technician wanted to talk to Abram's parents about.

"He said, 'You need to know there was a divine presence carrying us through that procedure.' He said he had never seen such a sense of commitment from a team."

The technician wasn't the only one who thought so.

On Thursday, Dr. Alan Menkis, the medical director of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority's cardiac program, was going over Abram's case. Later, he told me they spend a lot of time reflecting on the difficult cases to see what they can learn.

And why, given the same scenario five times, some succeed and some don't.

"Sometimes," Dr. Menkis conceded, "we can't answer that."

Dr. Menkis preferred the word "serendipity" rather than providence to explain how perfectly everything had lined up for Abram. Still, I wondered if Dr. Menkis thought having a lot of people praying for him hurt Abram's chances.

"Never," he said. "It never hurts. We need all the help we can get."

So there you have it.

A Christmas Eve story for those who believe there is a God that answers prayers. And even those who don't.

But will take a little prayer in a pinch.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 24, 2011 B1

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