published Wednesday, December 25th, 2013

Christmas miracles: Chattanooga area families celebrate the gift of life

Elizabeth Thornburgh, 31, brings her daughter, Violet, 16 months, to work with her at the Chattanooga Autism Center on McCallie. Violet was diagnosed with a rare disorder, Kawasaki’s Disease, last Christmas.
Elizabeth Thornburgh, 31, brings her daughter, Violet, 16 months, to work with her at the Chattanooga Autism Center on McCallie. Violet was diagnosed with a rare disorder, Kawasaki’s Disease, last Christmas.
Photo by Tim Barber.

Violet Thornburgh

Elizabeth and Rick Thornburgh had finished wrapping the presents and placed them under the tree: a homemade blanket, trains and books for her 4-year-old son, Nick; and a little lamb bed and a Leapfrog baby laptop for her 4-month-old daughter, Violet.

In 2012, the family was going to spend a quiet Christmas at home, then travel to Mississippi.

But the week before Christmas, Violet's temperature began rising. Her parents guessed it could be a cold. But it was strange: The fever persisted alone: no cough, no swelling.

Her pediatrician performed several tests and agreed that it must be the common cold -- but told Thornburgh to return if things didn't improve.

Things didn't improve. The fever climbed, and a rash crept up Violet's body.

Two nights before Christmas, Violet woke up wailing.

When Thornburgh picked her baby up, she radiated 104-degree heat.

"I felt like I was holding a heater," she said.

While her husband, Rick, stayed with Nick, Thornburgh rushed Violet to T.C. Thompson Children's Hospital at Erlanger.

In the car seat, Violet began throwing up, and her lips and her tongue started bleeding. Every time Thornburgh wiped her daughter's mouth, the blood only continued to spill out.

At the hospital, triage doctors ran tests on Violet while Thornburgh touched base with her husband.

He had been Googling Violet's symptoms when a listing for a rare disease popped up.

"Ask them about Kawasaki's disease," he texted her.

Thornburgh raised her eyebrows. "Like the motorcycle?" she thought.

With some hesitation, she mentioned the disease to the doctor.

The doctor nodded and said, "We have actually been considering Kawasaki's."

Kawasaki's disease is a rare illness that afflicts young children and infants, causing the severe inflammation of blood vessels.

The disease can be written off as a stubborn fever. But left untreated, it can cause heart disease that could go undetected for years. It is the leading cause of acquired heart disease in children.

Out of the thousands of children seen at Children's, the doctor said, only a handful had been treated for Kawasaki's.

Treatment for the disease would involve a slowly administered IV treatment that would keep her in the hospital over Christmas.

"I just want her better," Thornburgh remembers saying. "If that means she stays through Christmas Day, it's fine."

During her stay, Violet grew sensitive to the sight of the hospital door opening. Every entrance meant medicine or an IV, and she would burst into tears.

But on Christmas Eve, the door opened to reveal a cheery man in a big red suit and a white beard, carrying a sack of gifts donated to sick children and their siblings.

For the first time in days, Violet smiled.

Violet was discharged last Christmas Day, and her outlook remains good. The 16-month-old is a toddling bundle of energy -- clambering over furniture, chattering away in her own little language, and inventing games.

This year, the presents are back under the tree. It's going to be a sweet Christmas.

But Thornburgh said she will have families and children in the hospital on her mind.

"Christmas is wherever your family is. Whether that's at home, on the road -- in the hospital. ... It's wherever your family is," she said. "That is what we learned."

Keith Underwood

In the blur before his six-hour surgery, Keith Underwood remembers turning to look at his wife, then at his 17-year-old daughter.

  • photo
    Keith Underwood, center, stands with nurses Donna Spears and Jill Davis in the Cardiac Rehabilitation Unit at Parkridge Medical Center.
    Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The hospital staff at Parkridge Medical Center had already sliced off his wedding ring in the rush to get him into the operating room, and they were prepping his right leg to harvest veins that they would transfer to his heart. He and his family had only a few minutes to pray together, and to cry.

"In my mind, the doctors were saving my life. In their minds, I was dying," Underwood said.

None of the family had been given much time to process what was happening. It had all unfurled so fast. Just a few days earlier on Memorial Day, Underwood, 52, had just decided to do some yard work.

He had noticed chest pain and shortness of breath for the past several days, but on that day, while shoveling mulch, it became too much.

His wife, Rhonda, insisted he put down the shovel. And his physician urged him to see a cardiologist to get a diagnostic angiogram.

Waiting for the test results, Underwood reckoned with the fact that he would probably need some treatment. Though he had long worked as a practice manager for Hospital Corporation of America, he had only given lip service to doctor's orders to better manage his Type 2 diabetes and his diet.

When the cardiologist whisked back in, there was no talk of appointments. Today, the doctor insisted. Underwood needed open-heart surgery today.

Two of Underwood's arteries were clogged shut, and one more was almost blocked. He hadn't had a heart attack yet -- but it could happen any moment.

The cardiac team at Parkridge prepped him for triple bypass surgery that afternoon. It was finished that night.

Underwood looks at the events leading up to the surgery as a collection of divine interventions: The baby aspirin he took the Memorial Day morning. His wife telling him to stop the yard work.

The cardiothoracic surgeon who should have been gone by the time Underwood was brought in, but was still in the physician's lounge.

"Maybe other people won't call it a miracle, but I do," Underwood says. "The timing was all lined up too perfectly."

An 11-inch scar is not the only souvenir from the surgery. He has since lost 20 pounds and is exercising more through the hospital's rehab program.

And now, the simplest things brim with preciousness: Holding his wife's hand. Watching his daughter graduate high school. Having a simple Christmas at home.

"We love each other more. We hold each other more. We talk about more intimate parts of our day, instead of just asking 'How was your day?'" said Underwood. "I am so thankful for every moment that I have, every day I wake up."

Kimberly Kocher

Before last Christmas, Kimberly Kocher was planning her next round of adventures for the New Year.

  • photo
    Kimberly Kocher survived breast cancer this year.
    Photo by C. B. Schmelter.
    enlarge photo

The 50-year-old, who has already gone hang-gliding, skydiving and ziplining, had bought vouchers to take another hang-gliding trip with her 24-year-old nephew.

But a routine mammogram that winter set the course for an entirely different kind of excursion.

Kocher did not want to tell her family about the cancer found in her right breast. Her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 47, and died just two years later.

Her cancer was contained, but doctors said she should get genetic testing at Memorial Health Care System's MaryEllen Locher Breast Center to determine the likelihood that it could appear elsewhere.

Kocher tested positive for the BRCA gene -- a defective gene that, in her case, upped her chances of continuing to develop breast cancer to over 90 percent.

The numbers were all Kocher needed to instantly make what can be an excruciating decision for many women: to get a preventive double mastectomy and hysterectomy.

"It was a no-brainer for me," Kocher said. "If they had said 60/40, I would have taken the chance. But at 90 percent -- there's not a second thought."

It may have been a simple decision, but the journey since then has not been easy. Kocher has had to return for multiple surgeries because of complications during the healing process. She developed a bacterial blood infection that left her unable to go back to work for days.

Through it all, Kocher says she was energized by her husband, her family and her co-workers. She describes such support as its own kind of medicine, improving her prognosis.

"It felt kind of like how we all felt on 9/11," Kocher said. "You just want to hug your family and tell them you love them and tell them that everything is OK."

Kocher's sister also got the gene test -- but tested negative. It was a massive relief to Kocher not only for her sister's sake, but for her nephews', ages 24 and 12.

If a parent has the gene defect, each child has a 50/50 chance of inheriting it.

"They are not going to have to worry about it, and that is the most important to me," she said.

And as soon as she heals from her latest round of surgery, Kocher plans to go hang-gliding again.

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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