When I Wished upon a Star: From Broken Homes to Mended Hearts

When I Wished upon a Star: From Broken Homes to Mended Hearts

by Brandon Lane Phillips, Jeremy James Miller


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When I Wished Upon a Star is the true tale of a "wish kid" with a heart defect who meets and forms a lifelong friendship with his favorite television child actor. A series of divine circumstances bring them back together again to find hope for their future and purpose in their lives because of a wish-like prayer made by an 11-year-old boy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781595558565
Publisher: Nelson, Thomas, Inc.
Publication date: 03/12/2019
Pages: 294
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.81(d)

About the Author

Brandon Lane Phillips is a pediatric cardiologist who was born with a congenital heart defect. He received portions of his medical training by the very physicians who treated him. He serves on the Board of Trustees for the Starlight Children’s Foundation.

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Open-Heart Surgery for the Baby

At 11:00 p.m., Mama shot up in bed. I was causing her some mean labor pains. My parents scrambled out of bed, pulling on their clothes and grabbing the neatly packed suitcase next to the door. They piled my sleepy thirteen-year-old sister, Brenda, into the car and dropped her at an aunt's house along the way. With my mother's shooting pains growing worse, my father floored it onto the highway — until he was pulled over by the Louisiana State Police for speeding. They finally arrived and after only two hours of labor — and very close on the heels of the doctor who hurriedly made his way into the delivery room — I arrived.

Back then parents normally didn't know the sex of a child before its birth. Mama learned I was a boy when the doctor who had just helped to bring me into the world exclaimed, "Oh, look! It's a little Kojak!" My tiny bald head gleamed and my face was scrunched into a stony glare. It was the first and only time I've been likened to Telly Savalas.

Mama had been only eighteen when she had Brenda. The focus of all my parents' attention, she'd had the ideal childhood — water skiing, attending stock car races, riding minibikes, camping, and participating in lots of adventures with Mama and Daddy and our extended family. She finally had to rise to the challenge, though, and make room for me.

I'm sure Mama would have preferred to have had her children closer in age. That said, neither thirteen years nor all the time my parents spent trying to have another baby after Brenda could prevent the two of us from becoming the best of friends. From the beginning Brenda thought the sun rose and set on me. It wasn't long before I felt the same about her. She was my "sissy," my "honey bunny." She took care of me when my parents were at work, and she saw to my every need. When I was plagued with sleeplessness and nightmares as a young child, the only way I could find sleep was by crawling into her bed.

In a lot of ways Mama's pregnancy with me had been just like her pregnancy with Brenda. Sure, she was in her early thirties. There was no planned baby shower for what would be the last grandchild on her side of the family. But everything else seemed normal. Mama didn't work outside of the home during either of her pregnancies. Daddy wanted her to be a homemaker and he entrusted her to raise their children without stress. The stay-at-home mom arrangement was standard for most families back then, and "normal" was exactly how Mama's life had been until the moment I arrived.

I entered the world in silence.

Mama waited for it with her heart pounding, but I didn't make a sound. After a moment the doctor and nurses began to whisper among themselves. Mama panicked at the thought of how quickly Brenda's cries had filled the room. Before she could utter any words, though, I released a howl that flooded the room with relief. She tried to bury her anxiety in the back of her mind.

For two days she lay in the hospital bed and kept her questions to herself as doctors ran tests on me. When the time finally came for discharge, my physician told Mama there was a small possibility that I might have a little hole in my heart.

"I think he'll do fine," he tried to assure her.

There didn't seem to be much Mama could do but wait. She thought about my condition alone in the hospital room.

Brenda couldn't wait for me to come home so that she could hold me whenever she wanted. I weighed a little more than six pounds, an average-sized baby who at that point didn't particularly look like anyone in the family. I cried a lot and often appeared fretful. Most worrisome for Mama was the tinge of blue that started to appear in my coloring after we arrived home. Brenda still remembers my ten tiny little blue fingers and toes. Even at thirteen she could tell that something was very wrong. Mama took me back to the hospital but they couldn't seem to pinpoint anything, so the doctors recommended that I have additional tests. My parents took me the 130 miles to state-of-the-art Baton Rouge General Medical Center.

Dr. Clifton T. Morris Jr. was the specialist in pediatric cardiology who took over my care. Even before testing, Mama was devastated at the thought of heart trouble. She'd had a cousin whose child with heart problems died soon after she was born. The family referred to her in whispers as the "blue baby." She'd also had an adult cousin who underwent open-heart surgery and was never able to get off the heart-lung machine before dying young.

The results of the testing added my name to our family's list of members with heart complications. Dr. Morris diagnosed me with Tetralogy of Fallot, a rare condition involving a combination of four heart defects present at birth. These defects cause oxygen-poor blood to flow out of the heart and into the rest of the body, leaving infants and children with blue-tinged skin.

Mama had waited so long for another baby. She had diligently collected the things she knew I would need, dusting off Brenda's old high chair and crib. My extended family had showed their love for me and my parents by sharing clothes and toys for me to play with. Although she and Daddy had the physical things I would need, neither had the emotional reserve for the condition that would ultimately define my life.

Dr. Morris delivered the news about my problematic heart with hope. He said that he had faith it could be corrected so that oxygen-rich blood would begin flowing to my extremities again. The heart-lung machine had been invented in 1953, and by this time, doctors were comfortable using it on people of all types. Operations performed on children with my condition were generally successful, though open-heart surgery didn't really become the standard of care for infants until the 1980s. By "successful," I mean that children would live through their operations and experience some improvement. While they might need more surgery or lifelong follow up in many cases, and often would never be able to "compete physically with other children," as Dr. Vargo put it, the surgeries could still give them an improved quality of life.

For more than thirty years these types of surgeries required a child to be about twenty pounds and at least two years old. As a result, it wasn't unusual for families to be told to wait. Dr. Morris recommended my surgery be performed after my seventh birthday. In the meantime, I would undergo regular x-rays and ECGs that would keep tabs on how my heart was progressing.

Every three to six months my parents would trek from Jena to Baton Rouge. They never complained and I am grateful for that. My parents were committed to making sure I was healthy even if it meant time away from home and work. My father was present throughout all that was going on with me, although his lack of initiative forced Mama to make all the decisions. He took time off from work to be exactly where I was for as long as I needed him, even when he lost wages because of it. Mama dreamed of more, a place where I could get the best care possible. Even beyond the boundaries of Louisiana if necessary. One day she received a letter in the mail that made that dream a reality.

Dr. Morris told Mama and Daddy by mail that he would be leaving Baton Rouge to do some additional study at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. The letter informed them that they would have to find a new pediatric cardiologist to care for me. This cemented the idea in Mama's mind and she immediately suggested that a move to Texas might be good for me, too. She thought Houston could be the place where she would find a larger hospital with state-of-the-art technology and doctors who were better-equipped to help me. My pediatrician recommended she look into Texas Children's Hospital, and that's where, at nearly two years of age, I met Dr. Thomas A. Vargo. He has had a tremendous impact on my life.

From the moment we met he had my best interests at heart. He was quick to propose the radical idea that I should not wait to have open-heart surgery. He believed that the sooner the correction was made the better chance I would have.

This was the first time the stars aligned, so to speak, in my young life. Mama had dreamed of a bigger medical facility with great doctors who could help her son. The place and the faces were yet unknown to her, but she put her faith in her instincts and found both without a referral or Google or WebMD. Mama believed she had been led to Dr. Vargo as an answer to a prayer born in her fragile, aching heart. She had no choice but to put her complete trust in him.


Feeble Heart, Fractured Family

Dr. Vargo recently told me he recalls my parents from their very first meeting. He said he remembers enjoying the ease with which he was able to talk to them about my heart. Mama and Daddy liked Dr. Vargo, too. From the very beginning his demeanor instilled trust.

Mama asked Dr. Vargo if it would be possible for everything to wait until I turned two years old. She wanted me to be able to celebrate my second birthday with family before the surgery. Dr. Vargo was sensitive to the weight of the situation and he agreed. It was only a few months away, anyway. Whatever Dr. Vargo said was good enough for Mama. Never once did she consider seeking another opinion. She relied on the sense of peace she got from him.

But her greatest source of hope came from prayer. Mama says she prayed nearly twenty-four hours a day during that period. When we returned home to wait for my surgery, Mama would lie awake all through the long nights and talk to God. Before she had left Jena, she had taken me to the front of the church, my sister and father alongside her, while the pastor led the congregation in prayer. Standing up there in front of the wooden pews and simple stained-glass windows she had known since childhood, she asked God to take care of me. Tears in her eyes, she gave me back to God and chose to trust Him through whatever was to come.

Several local churches and banks in my local community took up special offerings to pay for some of my medical and travel expenses. Babies with any serious medical condition were rare in Jena, a town of less than 2,500 residents at the time. I believe God moved so many peoples' hearts to help because He was looking out for me. When she heard about the collection Mama cried in gratitude. Then she went right back to the church and prayed for God's intervening hand before and after my surgery, as she would for all my procedures after that.

The only question now was who would do the surgery. Dr. Vargo wanted to leave the decision up to my parents. It was important that they maintain some sense of control over what was in fact an uncontrollable situation. But neither Mama nor Daddy knew of anyone in the field, so they were open to suggestions. Without hesitation, Dr. Vargo recommended Dr. Denton Cooley, a cardiothoracic surgeon who was steadily gaining a great reputation around the country for his work on babies and infants, to do the surgery.

In 1979, there were significant risks involved in doing an operation on such a young heart. Fortunately, Dr. Cooley had proven he could beat the odds. He was a world-famous surgeon credited with performing the first implantation of a completely artificial heart. He had also founded the Texas Heart Institute. He was surgeon in chief at the time of my surgery and would go on to serve in this position until 2014.

Mama purchased a book about Dr. Cooley from the hospital gift shop. She kept the book for decades and presented it to me when I received the Young Alumnus of the Year Award at Louisiana Tech in 2006. Mama bought the book because she had faith I would make it through, and she wanted me to know one day the magnitude of the man who had performed my first open-heart surgery. Little could she imagine that I would meet him many years later during my residency in that same hospital. Or maybe she could.

As the days ticked by Mama had time to contemplate how much I had grown over the past couple of years and how much I had overcome to do so. I had learned to crawl by scooting along with my head down on the floor as if it were too heavy for me to hold up. I had learned to walk but I took breaks to assume a squatting position when I became tired. And I had learned to love music. My favorite was a record belonging to my sister called "Hot Child in the City." Every day, as soon as Brenda left for school, I would go into her room and somehow, at two years of age, turn on her record player. I'd dance to the lyrics, twisting and turning until I could stand no more and had to squat, a grin spread across my small face. Children often bring toys to the hospital to remind them of home. Brenda's record and record player came with me to Houston. The song was constantly played for me in the children's ICU. It brought a smile to my face even in a hospital bed.

My family had cake and ice cream to celebrate my second birthday. Soon afterward I entered the hospital just in time to celebrate Halloween in the children's ward. The festivities were a pleasant diversion for the family. Brenda made it her responsibility to take me "trick or treating," pulling me around in a wagon from one hospital room to the next.

Three days later Mama carried me through the halls of the hospital to the operating room. She says it felt like a death row inmate's walk to execution. It could very well have been the last moments of her young baby's life.

Dr. Cooley normally performed his daily schedule of surgeries in immediate succession. He only paused to change his gloves, study the patient's chart, and regroup with his staff. After his last operation of the day he would go into the waiting room to individually brief the families. For parents and loved ones this meant an agony of waiting. Dr. Cooley charged his nurses with leaving the operating room periodically to keep the patients' loved ones informed.

Once I went into surgery Mama and Daddy didn't see me again until several hours later, at about 2:00 a.m. Parents were always the first to be allowed in the recovery room. Brenda, Aunt Deana, and my grandmothers would have to wait a few hours more to see how I was doing.

They rushed in, bodies frozen in tension, and leaned over the bed. "Love Mama," I said, my eyes barely open. My mom's heart broke, but it also eased her fears.

I opened my eyes and then said the same thing. "Love Mama."

The surgery had been a success, and I was soon moved from recovery to adult ICU, where there were lots of adults and many beds. Every time Mama entered the room, she got a chill at seeing her little baby in a big bed with tubes coming out all over his body. When she enveloped my hands in her own, they were ice cold.

Mama tensed up and brought this to the doctor's attention. No one had told her that it was necessary for my temperature to be lowered. Hypothermia had been used to arrest my heart during surgery. Doctors have since found better, safer ways to stop the heart for surgery.

I stayed in adult ICU for three more days before being transferred to a bed in the children's ICU. I was in the hospital for a total of three weeks. I developed pneumonia. In response the staff used clap therapy, which involves hitting a patient's back to help clear their lungs. They also instructed me to walk up and down the halls to keep air flowing through my lungs. I walked, but on my toes. Mama assumed it was due to the IV lines placed into my feet, but would be surprised to see that this walk persisted even after the IV lines were removed.

One day, I was taken back into surgery for a leaking patch. Tetralogy of Fallot patients have a hole in the wall between the lower two chambers of their heart. A patch had been sewn into my heart to seal the hole, but it was now leaking, enabling blood to flow across the middle. Mama had gone back to the hotel across the street where the family was staying to wash some clothes. When she got back, she heard from Daddy and my grandmothers that I was back in surgery. She became nearly hysterical, imagining all the things that could have happened to me while she was loading clothes into a hotel dryer. From that day on, she never left the hospital. She just sat there, exhausted, wearing the same dirty clothes, day in and day out. The rest of my extended family sat alongside her in the hospital — waiting, worrying, and wearing themselves out.


Excerpted from "When I Wished Upon A Star"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Brandon Lane Phillips, MD & Jeremy Miller.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction Kirk Cameron xi

Foreword Peter Samuelson xv

Preface xvii

Part 1 Wishing for It All 1

Open-Heart Surgery for the Baby 3

Feeble Heart, Fractured Family 9

Unexpected Best Man Duties 15

The Doogie in Me 27

The Presurgery Phone Call 31

The Encouraging Words of a Pastor 45

With a Little Help from My Friends 59

The Right Person for the Right Season 73

My Well-Kept Secret 89

The Big Interview 99

An Unexpected Trip to the Operating Room 111

Literally Sharing My Heart 125

Saying Goodbye to My Father 137

Crossing the Stage 143

Part II Another Life, Another Wish 147

A (Sitcom) Star Is Born 149

The Big Break 153

The Merging of Families 159

Private Life, Public Person 165

The Phone Stops Ringing 173

Part III The Circle Completed 179

Losing and Gaining Family Members 181

The Struggle of Addiction 187

My Doctors, My Friends 195

Reuniting Fictional TV Brothers 207

A Life-and-Death Decision 217

Thank God Mama Kept My Report Cards 227

Like a Fairy Tale…Until It Wasn't 231

A Thunderbolt Moment 241

Completing the Circle 247

Photo Section 255

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