The joy of Caleb Ortbals’ birth suddenly dimmed.
He inhaled blood before he could exit the womb and entered the world with a perforated lung. Through the fog of anesthesia, his mother vaguely remembers seeing two women in jumpsuits enter the room, rolling a Plexiglas incubator.
They were a transport team from SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital. It was Sept.16, 2009, in a delivery room at St. Anthony’s Medical Center, a partner of SSM Health Cardinal Glennon.
“It seemed like it played out in just a matter of minutes,” says Staci Ortbals. “I wasn’t aware of much. I was so sick. But I remember they waited until I was alert enough to put a transport blanket on him and hold his little hand. My husband, T.J., and Caleb’s grandparents were in the room. We did the only thing we could do — say a little prayer. Within an hour of when he was born, he was on his way to Cardinal Glennon.”
Caleb’s journey was just the beginning of a struggle that could have gone either way. “My doctor baptized him at birth,” Staci says. “Everybody thought he was not going to make it. When we realized they were bringing the transport team, it was comforting to know he would be able to quickly get the level of care that he needed. If Cardinal Glennon had not had people on site at St. Anthony’s, we don’t know if Caleb would have survived the night.”
Because Caleb’s lungs were not providing sufficient oxygen for his body, he was placed on an extra corporeal membrane oxygenation machine (ECMO) in the pediatric intensive care unit at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon. The device circulates the patient’s blood through a membrane to remove carbon dioxide and replenish oxygen. The blood is then pumped through the body. The procedure allows the heart and lungs to rest while recovering from an injury or infection.
After four days on ECMO, Caleb moved to the Dana Brown Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, a Level III nursery that cares for some of the sickest babies born in the Midwest. “We had thousands of people praying for us,” his mother says. “We finally got to hold him when he was 6 days old. We were sent home on day 16! It was completely miraculous.”
Just weeks before his second birthday, a bouncy, energetic Caleb returned to SSM Health Cardinal Glennon to christen a new “Cardinal Glennon Air” helicopter with a bottle of sparkling grape juice that he poured on the aircraft’s nose and into himself. A couple of weeks later, he realized a dream of going for a train ride on the St. Louis Zoo Line.