Tami Carrillo, left, mother of days-old Hunter, stands with volunteer… (Wally Skalij, Los Angeles…)
Tiny 10-day-old Hunter Carrillo lay sedated on an elevated bed at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, hooked to a massive machine taking the place of his heart, lungs and kidneys.
His parents, Tami and Joe, hovered nervously nearby. Every few minutes, Tami Carrillo carefully stepped around the tangle of cords and monitors to get a closer look at her newborn son and to briefly hold his fingers.
For nearly a week, the Carrillos have watched as a team of doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, cardiologists and surgeons worked around-the-clock, helping Hunter recover from an infection that caused him to stop breathing and his heart to stop pumping.
"We wake up sick and then spend the entire day in anxiety," said Joe Carrillo, 32. "There have been so many ups and downs that we are past our breaking point."
On Friday, they met another member of the newborn critical care team, one who could give them hope unlike anyone else.
As a newborn, Nallely Gomez fought for her life at the same hospital, hooked to a similar heart/lung bypass machine. Gomez, 19, now volunteers at the hospital's Newborn and Infant Critical Care Unit, stocking shelves, answering phones and most importantly, comforting parents.
"How is he doing?" Gomez asked the Carrillos, who also have two daughters, ages 8 and 12.
"They're taking good care of him," Tami Carrillo, 30, answered.
Gomez, who is studying to be a nurse, showed the couple the scar on her neck, a visible reminder of the weeks she spent on the extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine. She told them that she volunteers alongside the nurse who took care of her, and that she recently went to a reunion of babies who have spent time in the unit.
Tami Carrillo said Gomez helps give her faith that Hunter will recover. "He's so sick that it's really hard to imagine him getting better," she said. "It's not even day-by-day. It's hour-by-hour."
More than 1,000 babies have been supported by the heart/lung bypass machines at Children's Hospital since 1987, said Philippe Friedlich, medical director of the unit and professor at USC Keck School of Medicine. The babies often have to be airlifted to the hospital because of life-threatening infections, heart disease or respiratory failure. They frequently spend a few weeks on the machine, with continuous monitoring at their bedside, before their hearts and lungs are able to start functioning on their own.
Newborns like Hunter — who would have died without the machine — have about an 80% chance of surviving, Friedlich said. Others who have more serious, congenital illnesses have a lower survival rate.
Gomez fits into that category. She was born with a diaphragmatic hernia, or a hole in her diaphragm that allowed her organs to move into her chest and make it impossible to breathe.
Diane Real, a nurse who still works in the unit, remembers caring for Gomez in 1993 and believing that she wasn't going to survive. Real said Gomez is an inspiration to many parents. "It helps them a lot to see that she went through the same thing and has come out the other side," she said.
Gomez is still a patient at the hospital and continues to take medication to aid her breathing. She takes two buses and a train to get from her home in La Puente to the hospital for her volunteering shifts. "It's my way of giving back," she said.
Hunter was born Oct. 9 at Antelope Valley Hospital by Caesarean section. He weighed more than six pounds, had dark hair, smoky eyes and a strong spirit, his dad said. He went home with his parents two days later.
But soon after, he started making jerky movements and crying more than usual. Tami Carrillo said she knew something was seriously wrong. The Carrillos returned to the hospital and Hunter got progressively worse. "He didn't look like he was going to make it," she said.
Hunter was airlifted to Children's Hospital, where doctors first tried less invasive treatments. Then Hunter's heart stopped, and doctors realized that they didn't have a choice. Doctors hooked Hunter to the machine to give him time while the antibiotics attacked the infection.
Looking down at Hunter, whose body is red and swollen, Gomez said on Friday, "That was me laying there."
"My nurse tells me I was a fighter," Gomez said. "Maybe that's why I survived."
"You have to be a fighter to survive," Tami Carrillo said. "We keep telling him to fight, to be strong."
On Saturday night, Hunter came off the heart/lung bypass machine but is still is connected to oxygen. "This was the next step, so it's good," Joe Carrillo said. "But we have a long road ahead."