Medical students are expected to learn about a wide range of diseases and treatments through textbooks, lectures and hands-on simulated experiences; however, it is tragically unexpected to learn about a disease in the classroom that would ultimately impact your own child. Congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH) is a condition that causes a hole in the diaphragm, the muscle that separates the abdominal organs from the heart and lungs. The hole causes abdominal organs to move up into the chest, which hinders lung development. Three-month-old Samuel has been battling CDH since birth, but his strong-willed mother, Kansas City University (KCU) Fourth-year Student Doctor Elle Quinn, is determined to help him recover and spread awareness about his condition.
Quinn says Samuel is a happy and sweet-natured baby despite the trials he has faced. Her son was born at Kansas City’s Children’s Mercy Hospital in the Fetal Health Center after doctors discovered he had CDH. He had to be placed on the highest form of life support soon after his birth due to the severity of the disease. “He was missing the entire left side of his diaphragm, and his intestines, stomach, spleen and liver were all in his chest. He was placed on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation the day after he was born and had severe pulmonary hypertension,” she explained. “I finally got to hold him for the first time at 17 days old.”
While CDH survival rates have improved to 70 percent in recent years, survival for infants with severe cases remains at 15 to 25 percent. The team at Children’s Mercy worked hard to help Samuel defy the odds. “I have been impressed by many of the doctors, nurse practitioners, nurses and other health care professionals at Children’s Mercy. One doctor in particular who has meant a lot to me is Dr. Sean Curtis,” said Quinn. “He took care of Samuel his first two weeks of life when he was the most critical and we almost lost him. I will never forget how attentive, thorough and caring he was to Samuel and I during this time.”
The events that have taken place with her son have changed her views about the field of medicine significantly. Reflecting on her experiences during her pregnancy and as the parent of a critically ill infant, Quinn says it has made her more empathetic to patients going through hard times. “As a doctor, your words and attitude towards the patient matter and leave long-lasting impacts,” she expressed. “I have had to advocate for Samuel in many ways, so I have seen how important it is to listen to patients, their family members and nursing staff when they think something is wrong.”
The responsibilities of being a student and a mother sometimes overlap, but Quinn says she believes it has made her better at time and stress management. “I have had to miss days of my rotations because of my kids. Sometimes it’s hard to focus on school when your children are sick,” she said. “KCU has been very accommodating to me during my pregnancy with Samuel and his time in the NICU, and I am so grateful for that.”
Having a strong support system can make all the difference in the world for those experiencing times of difficulty, and Quinn says she will never forget the kindness shown to her family. She hopes to pay it forward someday to others in similar situations. “Think of practical ways you can help families. Bringing them a meal, watching their other children, donating money, putting together care packages or simply offering words of encouragement can make a profound difference for them,” Quinn said.
Today, Samuel is home recovering and his mom is happy to announce that he is breathing on his own. “He came home in half the amount of time they expected him to be able to come home. They originally told us he’d be there for six months,” Quinn explained. With much excitement, she also shares that she has matched at Southern Illinois University Family Medicine in Quincy, Illinois. As she embarks on her career as a physician, she hopes to emulate the care and empathy her son received at Children's Mercy and continue with KCU’s mission to improve the well-being of the communities she will serve.