Nicholas Viner’s heart showed up on a monitor as he underwent an echocardiogram at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
The tiny organ beat and squeezed blood as a cardiology technician recorded its actions.
But the true essence of Nicholas’ heart, and that of his family’s, was visible 90 minutes earlier when the Viner family donated hundreds of dollars worth of toys to the children’s hospital’s Child Life team for distribution to patients.
The family launched St. Nick’s Toy Drive in honor of their almost-4-month-old son who is battling heart defects. Born on Aug. 10 without a left ventricle, the smiley infant with deep brown eyes and tufts of dark hair went through his first surgery at just a week old.
The prognosis wasn’t jolly.
“When we first went to the doctor’s appointment, there was barely a double-digit percentage of survival,” said Nick’s mom, Sherri. “For him to be here is phenomenal. I don’t know where we’re at as far as percentages. We’re not paying attention to percentages. We’re just checking the blocks as we go and taking things one step at a time.”
Nick likely will face another surgery in the next couple of weeks, possibly over Christmas.
“We started Little St. Nick’s Toy Drive to provide toys for all the kids and families that are going to be in the hospital for the holidays,” said Nick’s mom, Sherri. “For us, it’s a little personal because we might end up being one of those families. It’s difficult to have to be in the hospital but probably even more so during the holidays.”
Nick will undergo a heart catheter on Dec. 14, which is when Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital pediatric cardiologist Yasser Al-Khatib, MD, will determine details of the little one’s next surgery.
Sherri and her husband, Jimmy, started brainstorming ways to give back after Nick’s heart defects were discovered during a routine 16- to 17-week ultrasound.
He suffers from heterotaxy syndrome, in which certain organs form on the opposite side of the body or don’t align as they should. Besides heart problems, Nick was born without a spleen, his stomach is on his right side and he also has intestinal issues.
“We had never heard of it before and the information out there was pretty sparse,” Sherri said. “It kind of was the motivation for the path we were led down.”
Dressed like a little St. Nick, with a little jolly man’s red Santa suit and hat, Nicholas slept through much of the toy drop-off, but then awoke to look out on the scene inside the Child Life library with wide open eyes as his mom spoke.
“We wanted to bring some extra joy to families during Christmas,” Sherri said. “We have toys for all different ages. And a lot of people sent us money and we went out and bought a lot of toys.”
Haylee Hill, Child Life administrative project coordinator, said she was thrilled with the Viner family generosity.
“This is a really large donation,” Hill said Tuesday as she eyed the wardrobe box and several bags overflowing with coloring books, Barbie and Elsa dolls, headphones, toy cars and card games.
Hill explained that the Child Life team will surprise many young patients on Christmas morning by slipping into their rooms and leaving presents during the night while they sleep.
Other toys will be used for birthday gifts or other celebratory moments, such as final chemotherapy treatments.
“And there are times when kiddos here just need something to make their day a little brighter,” Hill said.
After the toy drop, the family rode the elevator to the 10th floor for Nick’s appointment with Dr. Al-Khatib.
Jimmy took off Nick’s little Santa suit, revealing a smooth scar down the middle of the infant’s chest.
The couple’s other boys—James, 14, and Alexander, 2—played alphabet cards on the exam room’s small couch.
As James and Alex worked through “A for acorn,” pediatric cardiology clinical support associate Alisha Funk monitored Nick’s aorta.
“You’re so patient,” Funk cooed to little Nicholas. “You’re doing a great job.”
When Funk announced an oxygen saturation rate of 82, Jimmy cheered. The infant’s rate had been running in the high 60s.
“It’s a Christmas miracle,” Jimmy said.
Jimmy and Sherri moved to the Wyoming-Grandville area about a year ago, after Jimmy, an active-duty Army recruiter, was relocated to Grand Rapids.
“The fact that we have Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital right here is a godsend,” Jimmy said. “I can retire in one and a half years, but we’ll probably just settle down here.”
Sherri said the couple is taking their son’s medical journey one step at a time.
“With Nicholas, the health issues are always concerning,” she said. “Knowing we have a surgery coming up, it gets stressful, but we try to stay as positive as we can as a family.”
Sherri said their son’s foundation helps the family members focus not just on themselves, but on others, and not just on Nicholas’ heart, but gifts of the heart.