A Heart that HealsBy Nicole Jordan
Some people describe it as a club, a club that no one ever wants to join. There are no meetings or annual holiday parties. Instead, members are forced together and bound for life by one common thread – the loss of a child.
What do an internationally recognized doctor and eight women who have never even met have in common? They are all members of the club. While the circumstances vary, each individual has walked the same path of learning how to live after losing a child. And, each one has discovered that healing is possible.
The newly released book Healing Hearts has been years in the making for Dr. Hisashi Nikaidoh. A collection of brutally honest accounts of losing a child as told by eight mothers and one doctor, Healing Hearts is a difficult but rewarding read.
Over his 54 years in medicine (31 spent at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas), Dr. Nikaidoh has made a career of performing life-saving surgeries on the tiny hearts of children. But, for all the lives he’s saved, there were cases that fell beyond the reach of his skill. Each loss came as a blow to the doctor, a devout Christian who was known for his kindness, taking time to attend funerals and send out handwritten notes offering his sympathies to grieving families. But it wasn’t until Dr. Nikaidoh’s own son passed away in 2003 that he truly empathized with the parents of his lost patients. Following the sudden death of his son Hitoshi, a recent medical school graduate with dreams of becoming a missionary doctor, Dr. Nikaidoh came to understand firsthand the depth of pain that follows the loss of a child.
As the doctor struggled to find his own healing, he began to see a surprising trend. Mothers of his former patients walking the halls of Children’s, dedicating themselves in service to the same hospital where their child had died. “Why would anyone want to return to the site of their child’s death?” Dr. Nikaidoh wondered. Emboldened by the camaraderie he felt with these mothers after losing his own son, the doctor finally just asked. One such mother, Linda Ojeda, replied simply, “It helps me.”
“Each circumstance was so different,” he says. “Yet, a pattern emerged. The mothers have found the best way for recovery – doing something for others.”
Ojeda established the Translation Department at Children’s, her way of giving back, after her 2-year-old son passed away. Marie Crowe’s little boy Jackson never left the hospital. He died just weeks after birth, the result of a deformed heart. Though she remembers having heart palpitations on her first drive back to the hospital after his death, it was important for her to return and say thank you. “We felt so much gratitude to the hospital that we immediately looked for a way to say thank you and honor our child,” she says. “So, we did that financially, and it was really meaningful for us. Helping the hospital gave us an ongoing way to honor his memory.”
Crowe says participating in Healing Hearts was yet another way to keep Jackson’s memory alive. She appreciated the opportunity to talk about her late son but also believed her story would convey a message of hope. “Even in the greatest tragedy there are blessings,” she says. “It’s amazing. We have healed so much. Ours is a story of surviving and leaving a powerful legacy. We weren’t broken and ruined. Ours is a miraculous story of healing.”
The miracle of healing is a theme that runs throughout the whole of Healing Hearts. As Crowe read the other mothers’ stories, she was struck by how profound and defining the loss of a child is, whatever the circumstances. “It’s like there’s life before loss and life after loss,” she says. She was also impressed by the human capacity to recover from the depths of grief, with the help of faith and service to others.
Karen Ellis echoes those sentiments. Her son Phillip was born with Down syndrome and a heart defect. He lived nearly 25 years until his heart finally gave out. “My Nikaidoh,” as Phillip always calls the doctor, came to the family’s home in Phillip’s last days to visit with his longtime patient and comfort the family. “How many physicians – not to mention cardiothoracic surgeons – do you know that make house calls to comfort and say goodbye to a patient who was dying, just because they had asked to see him?” Ellis says. “I only know one.”
Initially, Ellis was apprehensive about revisiting the heartbreak of losing her son. But she says she’s glad she made the choice to participate. In the years since Phillip’s death, she has learned that she has more strength than she realized. “I found that I am able to handle things I never thought I could,” she says. She adds that the only way she survived was by putting her life in the hands of God.
Ellis has a long history with Children’s, dating back to before Phillip’s death. Today, she is a resource for families dealing with the trauma she knows very well; she works with the Palliative Care Program, a resource she helped develop. “It helps to talk to someone about the process,” she says. “It will never be the same and you will never ‘get over it,’ but you can go on.”
Each of the mothers in Healing Hearts has moved on in her own way, but they all share a connection to Children’s and to Dr. Nikaidoh. The doctor maintains a home in Dallas but moved on to work as director of Children’s Hospital at Saint Francis in Tulsa in 2008. He admits that at 77 years old, retirement could be on the horizon. He says he isn’t the same doctor he was 54 years ago. He humbly admits that his faith and his loss have taught him that there are many things in life that are simply out of his control.
When asked what Hitoshi would have to say about Healing Hearts, Dr. Nikaidoh’s smile is evident even over the phone. “What would my deceased son say?” he asks. “I can see his smile. His question would be, ‘What took you so long, Dad?’”
For more information on Healing Hearts and information on how to purchase the book visit thehealingheartsbook.com.
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