Little man fights big battle

FAIRMONT – Van Tomford is slightly leery about the stranger pointing the camera at him. Yet he remains cheerful as his mom plays peek-a-boo with him in his bouncer. Eventually, he cracks a smile and giggles.

The 8-month-old is incredibly well-spirited, considering he already has had two open heart surgeries, with more to come throughout his life.

When Van was born a few weeks premature, he seemed like a normal, healthy baby. But after his mother, Carissa Ricard, brought him home, she noticed something was not quite right.

“He was more lethargic, even for a newborn,” she said. “He would turn blue and he would also scream while he was eating.”

The problem wasn’t determined until Van’s six-month doctor visit.

“They heard a heart murmur, and they ordered an echo,” Ricard recalled. “He had no pulmonary artery and they took him to Rochester immediately for surgery. Usually, that sort of thing can be detected in utero, but it wasn’t found … He was living off a vein that goes from his heart to his lungs that babies have in utero, but it usually closes off after their first few breaths after their born. So he was living off this tiny little vein.”

Van’s heart was reconstructed, and it was learned he had the congenital heart defect pulmonary atresia with VSD.

“There is a large hole between the two heart chambers,” Ricard said. “He will need more surgeries. Three weeks ago, he had his second surgery. His right lung and lung artery were dangerously small, so we needed a conduit to bring blood to his lungs and arteries. His next surgery will be to patch the hole in his heart, and that will need to be replaced throughout his whole life.”

While the surgeries have been successful in saving Van and giving him a better quality of life, there are still setbacks.

“For every time in the hospital, there is a six-week delay in his development,” Ricard said. “He’s not sitting up or crawling. He’s wearing a helmet, because all his time laying down has caused him to have a flat head. I also can’t lift this big boy under his arms … And there is a lot of trial and error; you don’t know what type of effect each surgery will have on him.”

There is also the effect on the rest of the family. Because Van is more vulnerable to colds and other illnesses, especially in the weeks following surgeries, he is unable to go to daycare. Ricard works at Stepping Stones daycare.

“We haven’t been there in three weeks,” Ricard said. “That really hurts when there’s bills to pay.”

But through it all, Van remains a happy and resilient baby.

“We have an outreach doctor from Rochester who comes to see us, so that helps,” Ricard said. “And Van’s a pretty happy baby. You have no idea anything is wrong with him until you see he scars. He still smiles at all the doctors.”

But there’s still the off-chance that remains.

“On these surgeries, there’s a 97 percent chance that everything will go fine,” she said. “But there’s still that 3 percent … I had Van baptized about a week before we found out that anything was wrong, so that was a big thing for us.”

A benefit for Van will be held at Pizza Ranch in Fairmont on Monday evening from 5-9 p.m.

All tips and a portion of the profit that night will go toward Van’s medical bills.