Area doctors have a heart for Jamaican

Area doctors have a heart for Jamaican

Rebekah Gordon, STAFF WRITER

REDWOOD CITY — Though he was born 19 years ago on March 17, Odell Carby has declared Dec. 22 his new birthday.

And his requisite birthday gift didn’t come easily, as Odell and his mother traveled more than 3,000 miles from the Clarendon parish of Jamaica to get it.

Nor was it wrapped. Or accompanied by birthday cake.

But three heart valves was just about the best present that Odell could have gotten.

“I feel brand new,” he said.

Six or seven months ago, doctors at University Hospital of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica discovered that Odell, who was complaining of shortness of breath, had three damaged heart valves that needed replacement and repair. But never having done such a surgery before, they hesitated to perform it.

His mother, Ionie Powell, 39, said the doctors weren’t even sure whether he would live or die.

“It was scary,” she said.

Odell’s primary doctor on the case, William Foster, e-mailed for help from his American colleagues, and Vincent Gaudiani, the director of cardiac surgery at Sequoia Hospital, heeded the call.

With an estimated cost of $50,000 for the procedure, Gaudiani and Sequoia offered their services at no charge, and St. Jude Medical donated the valves.

Juicy Patties, a fast-food chain where Odell worked in Jamaica, paid the airfare, and mother and son took their first airplane ride ever through Miami.

“I was saying to myself, ‘I wonder if he can make it,'” Powell recalled.

Instead, the vivacious and lanky young man quieted his mother’s fears and instantly made friends with other passengers, some of whom have called Sequoia since to learn of Odell’s status.

Gaudiani performed the four-hour surgery Dec. 22, completely replacing two of Odell’s heart valves with mechanical ones and repairing a third.

“I couldn’t lay down flat, not at all,” Odell said about his condition, which left his heart swollen with fluid. “When I woke up from the surgery, I realized I was flat. I was like …” he said, giving a thumbs up sign.

Odell’s troubles began at age 8, when he had a bout of rheumatic fever that went undiagnosed. An inflammatory disease most frequently seen in children and caused by an untreated streptococcus infection, it progressively damages heart valves.

Audrey Fisher, Sequoia’s manager of cardiovascular outcomes, said of the 600 open-heart procedures the hospital performs each year, only three or four are replacements such as Odell’s.

“We don’t have patients that are usually this age,” she said about heart-valve damage caused by rheumatic fever. “In the U.S., we’ve pretty much eradicated it.”

Tuesday, Odell proudly took a walk down the hospital hallway, heart monitor still attached, tossing his walker aside.

He can’t wait to go home to his job and to go back to school, he said.

“I pray for this moment,” he said in his Caribbean-accented English. “I didn’t expect to get this well.”

Full of optimism, Odell smiled even more brightly when Gaudiani, who has performed some 10,000 heart surgeries in his more than 20 years at Sequoia, entered Odell’s hospital room Tuesday for a quick check with the stethoscope.

“Out of the soup,” he said. “All good.”

They held hands like old friends.

“He’s our Christmas gift to ourselves, the opportunity to do so much good for a young person,” Gaudiani said.

Odell rose from his bed to hug the man who gave him a second birthday. His mother beamed, visibly overcome with emotion.

“Is this not its own reward?” Gaudiani asked. “For us, it was purely a joy. This is what we do.”

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