Shaun Patterson was in tears. After years of hard work, he learned he would miss his high school graduation because he would have to remain in the hospital for weeks or months while awaiting a heart transplant. Shaun had been born with congenital heart defects that erased his dreams of playing basketball but he set other goals — earning a college degree in sports marketing on his way to a broadcasting career.
A major milestone would be sharing high school graduation with life-long friends.
“When it started to hit Shaun he was really down,” said his mother, Robin Gorden. “He was literally crying. He said, ‘I lost everything.’ I told him he hadn’t lost everything. I told him he was going to have a good graduation.”
Even mom did not know how special — even “super” — the graduation would be.
“When Shaun was born he weighed 8 pounds and 9 ounces,” his mother said. “The day we were about to go home, the doctor heard a heart murmur. He said Shaun was in critical condition and said we needed to go to Cardinal Glennon.”
A transport team took Shaun to SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital on his third day of life. “We have been coming here since,” Robin said.
Shaun was born with tetralogy of Fallot, a combination of four heart defects that prevents the heart from effectively pumping fully oxygenated blood throughout the body.
“For the first two years we were frequently in and out of the hospital,” Robin said. “He had two cardiac catheterization procedures and a heart surgery when he was about 18 months old. He needed to have his pulmonary valve replaced when he was 17.”
“The incidence of all forms of congenital heart disease, ranging from very mild to severe, is about two percent of the general population,” said Kenneth Schowengerdt, MD, director of the Dorothy and Larry Dallas Heart Center at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon. He also is the Wieck-Sullivan Professor of Pediatrics and director of pediatric cardiology within the Department of Pediatrics at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. He is a member of the SLUCare Physician Group.
“Tetralogy of Fallot consists of several abnormalities, one being an abnormal communication between the two lower pumping chambers of the heart, the ventricles. In addition there are varying degrees of obstruction of blood flow from the right ventricle to the lungs. This obstruction is related to a combination of thickened ventricular muscle tissue, an abnormal pulmonary valve and, in some instances, abnormal development of the arteries supplying blood flow to the lungs.”
Throughout his life Shaun visited the Dallas Heart Center for annual checkups. His years of relatively good health ended early in 2019.
“Shaun kept throwing up. I thought he had a stomach virus,” his mother said. Shaun also assumed it was just one of those bugs and insisted on dragging himself to school every day. Until the day he was so weak he slowly walked into the school nurse’s office and asked to be taken to the bus in a wheelchair for the ride home.
“The school nurse called me,” Robin said. “I said, ‘I am coming to pick him up right now and going to Cardinal Glennon. This is something deeper.’”
When Shaun arrived in the Dan Dierdorf Emergency and Trauma Center he was admitted directly to the pediatric intensive care unit. Testing determined that his heart was no longer up to performing its duties.
“Unfortunately,” his mother recalled, “they said, ‘He is going to need to do a heart transplant.’”
“Heart transplantation is a relatively uncommon outcome for patients with tetralogy of Fallot,” Schowengerdt said. “In some cases, a patient may require one surgery for total correction and do very well into adulthood. Shaun did relatively well after his initial operations, then he began to develop failure of the heart muscle of the main pumping chambers. He developed some cardiac rhythm abnormalities as a result. Therefore his only option was to undergo a heart transplant.”
“You will have a cap and gown”
After Shaun’s name was placed on the official list for receiving a donor organ, he twice went into cardiac arrest and required resuscitation. He ultimately required surgical placement of mechanical assist devices to support his circulation while he awaited a new heart.
His family and the hospital staff tried to keep his spirits up. “I told him that he was going to have a graduation. You will have a cap and gown. I will get your announcements,” Robin said.
Meanwhile, Shaun was befriended by Brooke Brothers, BSN, RN, nursing care coordinator for the hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit and transitional care unit. “I knew he was going to be here for an extended amount of time so I started being someone who could take him out of his room in the afternoons,” she said. “He needed to be with a nurse to leave the room because his heart was so sick. We needed to get him out of his room for mental health reasons.
“He was a very shy, quiet kid who did not talk to anyone — his nurses or doctors. Once I started taking him outside, I was the one person he could open up to. He would tell me about his life, having a heart condition, what he was doing at school, his plans and his goals for the future. He totally touched my heart. I wanted to take him under my wings.”
Much of what Shaun talked about was sports. “He told me everyone thought he would be a great basketball player because he was so tall but he could never play sports because of his health,” Brothers said. “It devastated me to think that he was 18 and was going to miss his graduation, something he had been looking forward to his whole life. I wanted to do something special for him and motivate him so he would not give up as he waited for a new heart.”
Shaun often talked about his favorite athletes and teams — basketball star LeBron James and the New England Patriots football team, especially quarterback Tom Brady. What a coincidence.
“I have a good friend, Dan Connolly, who lives in St. Louis. He played football at Marquette High School in Chesterfield and then played for the New England Patriots — with Tom Brady — for eight seasons,” Brothers said. “I work out at the same gym as Dan and his wife. His kids and my kids go to school together.
“I hated to ask him for a favor, but…“ Brothers told Connolly about Shaun. “Dan said, ‘Let me see what I can do.’”
Within 24 hours Tom Brady responded to Connolly’s message. “I wanted to do something special for him and motivate him so he would not give up as he waited for a new heart.”
“Tom asked Dan to give him some details about Shaun so he could make the message personalized. So I did. Sure enough, I got a text message with Tom’s video for Shaun. I kept it a secret.”
On the same day this was unfolding, a donor heart became available and Shaun underwent a transplant on May 22. Included on the transplant team were cardiothoracic surgeons and SLUCare physicians, Andrew Fiore, MD and Charles Huddleston, MD. Both practice at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon.
Fiore had performed the first corrective heart surgery Shaun needed during infancy.
“That was a very fulfilling moment for us because we were able to help this child from infancy, when the tetralogy was repaired, then the need for teenage pulmonary valve replacement and now, finally, a new heart in adulthood,” Fiore said. “Helping these children all along the way to adulthood is extremely gratifying for us. It is a story like Shaun’s that fuels pediatric heart surgeons to do what they do.”
On June 3, after the other seniors had graduated from Hazelwood Central High School, the Danis Auditorium at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon was decorated for Shaun’s own ceremony. He had spent the days since his transplant traveling in a wheelchair, but thrilled his family and care team by walking down the aisle in his cap and gown.
Shaun was presented his diploma and returned to his seat. On a video monitor, larger than life, Tom Brady’s smiling face appeared. “Shaun, I just wanted to let you know that you are an amazing guy and I’m really proud of you and all the things that you have accomplished thus far,” he said. “I also hear you love sports and you love the Patriots, and I think what may be the best idea is you analyze a few plays for me and see what you can do.
“Pull up some of your favorite clips and send them to me so I can do a little evaluation. Hang tough. Take care. We’re proud of you. Congrats on your graduation and keep kicking butt.”
Shaun cried again. This time he was overwhelmed with joy. He dabbed tears from his cheeks with one hand and held his diploma with the other as he proceeded down the aisle to leave the ceremony.
Still a man of few words, he had one comment about Brady’s message. “Priceless.”
Another commitment prevented Connolly from attending the graduation but he visited the next day and Shaun gained another Patriot friend. Connolly was an offensive lineman and team captain for the Patriots and won a Super Bowl ring in 2015, his last season before retirement. For eight years his job had been protecting Tom Brady.
“Dan ended up spending a couple of hours at Shaun’s bedside and was completely touched. They talked about life and goals and everything,” Brothers said. “I see Dan all the time and he still talks about how much that meant to him. He says, ‘If there is anything I can do for this kid, please let me know.’”
Shaun’s recovery following transplant went extremely well. After three months of weekly visits to the hospital for exams he was shifted to a monthly schedule. This fall he entered classes at Lindenwood University to study sports management.
“I want to be an analyst and commentator for basketball and football,” he said. “He has always loved sports. I told him to go to college to do what you love and you’ll thrive. There is a degree for sports management and you can do anything with that,” his mother said as she sat with Shaun in the hospital’s atrium lobby. She watched parents passing by with children in strollers and little red wagons. “Since the day we walked in here they have always been so good to us. So nice, so very helpful with anything we ever needed. It has been awesome. It has been great.”
“The outlook after heart transplantation is excellent now,” Schowengerdt said. “There have been so many advances over the past 20 years. The immunosuppressant medications that are required to prevent organ rejection are getting better and better and they have fewer side effects. The patients do very well and are unrestricted in their activities, although they do require life-long medications.” Although his health altered his life plans, Shaun is ready to move ahead.
“It is what it is. Cardinal Glennon has been a good place for me,” he said. “They helped me get through a lot of problems or I wouldn’t be here right now.”