They are finally friends now, Augusto and Wayne, 19 years after teetering on a life-and-death tightrope together. Just two guys talking--no longer the headline-making Dr. Augusto Sola and patient Wayne Abney, a kid born with a rare breathing disorder and a hole in his heart, the first U.S. baby to go home on a respirator.
"We'll go to Hard Rock [Cafe]," says Sola, 50, in a dress shirt and tie, strumming an air guitar.
"Sounds good," says Abney, 19, in a Virgin Records T-shirt that Sola--his godfather--bought him.
Until this visit, the two have not spent time together since Abney was a baby and Sola was a young doctor in a New Orleans neonatal intensive care unit. Now, Sola is director of neonatology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and Abney is a high school graduate (3.7 GPA) who wants to become a disc jockey, possibly in Los Angeles.
In early January, Abney and his family drove 33 hours in their van from Slidell, La., for a two-month vacation in Los Angeles. For the first few weeks, they are staying with Sola and his wife, Dr. Marta Rogido-Sola, who is also a Cedars-Sinai neonatologist, at their Beverly Hills home.
Augusto Sola and Wayne Abney's friendship should not have happened, according to the dictates of doctor-patient relations, particularly in the gut-ripping world of very sick babies. In July 1980, when Abney was born with a rare and severe congenital disorder, everything that Sola knew mandated that he keep his professional distance, an arm's-length objectivity. What developed, instead, was a relationship that transcended traditional boundaries--and both doctor and patient credit each other for changing the course of their lives.
"He loves talking to me," said Sola, who has Abney's graduation picture on his mantle, with those of his own four children. "He loves telling me many things about his life, and I love listening to him.
"I don't know that I could listen that long to a 19-year-old. But there is a bond here that is above and beyond what I can explain in human words."
Said Abney: "I talk to him like a friend; he just happens to be a doctor. He's like a long-lost relative or something."
Personal Interest in a Tiny Patient
For Sola, Abney started out as just another patient at the New Orleans hospital in July 1980.
On the day of Abney's birth, Sola was called to the delivery room with the news that a baby was not breathing. Sola put a tube in the infant's lungs to get the air flowing and waved the father over. Listen, he told Gary Abney.
Gary Abney, an off-shore oil worker, leaned over and heard his son cry.
Still, the baby was critically ill. He would never be able to breathe on his own for more than a few minutes. The disorder is known as Ondine's Curse, or congenital central alveolar hypoventilation. There is no cure.
Other doctors told Sola that the baby would not make it, that it might be more humane to withhold treatment.
But Sola saw the baby smile, through a world of beep-beeping machines that kept him alive. He saw that the baby's mental development would be normal. He saw how much this baby's parents cared.
"This kid was full of life," Sola said. "He was amazing. . . . I knew this kid could live, even if there wasn't a history of this [in similar cases]."
The doctor's ties with the family began on a day at the New Orleans hospital when Judy Abney could not find her 4-month-old child.
On that day, Sola had unhooked the baby from the respirator and taken him outside in a stroller for a short walk. This kid has to see the outside world, Sola thought, and needs a break from the machines.
Then Sola returned to his desk. With one hand, he took care of paperwork; with the other, he hand-pumped air into Wayne's lungs--which is what Judy Abney saw when she walked into his office. She began to imagine her son's life outside of the hospital, although, at the time, most babies who were that ill and dependent on respirators never made it home.
"Something in me clicked," said Judy Abney, now 42. "I thought to myself, 'I can do this. I'm going to take Wayne home. This can work.'
"He set the course for our lives."
Gary and Judy Abney had long discussions with Sola about taking their child home. He did not say yes or no. But Sola posted signs in their kid's intensive-care room: "Confidence" and "Independence." He arranged for the Abneys to get pulmonary, respiratory and other caregiving training. On his off hours, he organized a trust fund for his young charge and raised $35,000 to help supplement the Abneys' medical insurance coverage. Before the baby was discharged from the hospital, Sola helped set up monitoring equipment at the family's house.
At age 7 months, the baby made it home.
Sola turned the baby's care over to another pediatric specialist. By then, the Abneys had stopped thinking of Sola as their doctor.