The first grade class at St. Joseph School has become locally famous in the rural, one-stoplight village of Pewamo.
It’s the classroom of seven-year-old Thomas Kramer, who had his first of three open heart surgeries at three days old. There’s Brody Smith, who began fighting leukemia just as he was learning to talk. Kaine Simon underwent an hours- long surgery on his skull at five months old. And Madeline George’s biggest gift came two days after her first birthday: a new heart.
Their stories are what have earned Mrs. Connie Warczinsky’s classroom in this small town outside of Lansing an affectionate nickname: “The miracle class.”
“I truly believe that they will be friends forever as they all share such a special bond,” Madeline’s mom Kara George says. “Thinking about how much they have gone through in their short lives is just hard to even fathom. When I see the kids together it just warms my heart – such amazing, resilient, miracle children.”
In many ways the four young classmates are just like other first graders. Thomas likes Thomas the Train and Lego sets. Madeline loves crafting, jumping on trampolines and Barbie dolls. Kaine is a die-hard Michigan State fan. Brody is often found on a baseball field or playing Minecraft.
But at University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital where they all received their treatment – sometimes unknowingly at the same time – they share a title reflecting their courageous journeys: “Little Victors.”
More on the Miracle Class
As a nurse, Kara George knew something was wrong when her 6-month-old daughter completely lost interest in food, even vomiting after drinking her bottle. Then, symptoms became even more worrisome, with episodes of having to arouse baby Maddie from sleep because her pulse was too fast.
After a few ER visits and series of tests, the Georges’ fears were confirmed – there was a problem with Maddie’s heart.
Madeline was diagnosed with restrictive cardiomyopathy – the rarest form of cardiomyopathy that prevents the heart from pumping blood properly, leading to heart failure. There was only one “cure:” a heart transplant.
“We were just devastated,” Kara George remembers. “The most difficult part of this journey has been all the unknowns – not knowing what was wrong, not knowing if she would even get a new heart, not knowing what to expect when/if she got a new heart and of course all the uncertainty of the future.”
Maddie spent nearly two months in the Pediatric Cardiothoracic ICU at Mott on medications to keep her heart from failing. But just after turning one year old, she got her greatest gift– she received her heart transplant at the Congenital Heart Center at Mott.
Maddie will need a new heart someday but for now “you would have no idea that she had a transplant,” her mom says. She enjoys riding her bike, playing school and doctor, swimming, and playing with her sisters, friends, and cousins.
“Madeline was so incredibly resilient and strong through her whole journey. Her strength was such an inspiration to my husband and I, helping us get through all the hard times,” Kara George says.
“She was too young to remember any of it but we have shared her journey with her many times. I’m not sure that Madeline truly understands how miraculous her and her classmates really are.”
“She gets quite shy when I talk about (the other three) mostly because they are boys!” Kara adds, laughing. “She does, however, consider them friends. It’s so amazing the blessings that have been brought to each of us.”
Leah and Michael Kramer thought they knew what to expect with baby No.5. And after a son then three girls in a row, the couple was thrilled to hear “it’s a boy.”
But immediately after Thomas’ birth, something was different.
“We had no idea anything was wrong throughout Leah’s entire pregnancy,” Michael remembers. “Then Thomas was born blue … as blue as my blue jeans.”
Thomas was transferred by ambulance from Lansing where he was born to the U-M Congenital Heart Center. Mott doctors diagnosed Thomas with four heart defects (Tetalogy of Fallot) that prevented his blood from carrying enough oxygen and severe aorta coarctation, which meant his aorta was too small to pump blood into the rest of his body.
Without immediate surgery, he had no chance of survival.
Instead of going home to his siblings as planned, Thomas spent the first 100 days of his life at the hospital. At three days old Thomas underwent his first open heart surgery at Mott to rebuild his aorta. By three months old, he had two more complex open heart surgeries to repair his Tetralogy of Fallot to help his heart function properly.
At four months old, Thomas also had neurosurgery at Mott for hydrocephalus (excess brain fluid) to insert a VP brain shunt.
Thomas is among five medically documented known cases in the world of babies born alive with his particular combination of congenital heart problems and who have had attempted surgery to save their lives. Because Thomas is the first known survivor of this rare and complex heart condition, the U-M Congenital Heart Center team published his case in a medical journal.
“The more they learned about his case, the more doctors were just astounded he was born alive and survived,” Leah says.
Today, Thomas has some fine and gross motor delays, mild learning disorder, shortness of breath and vision problems because of his conditions but he’s able to play tee ball and soccer with his peers.
“He has had severe and life threatening complications, but he has overcome all of them,” his mother says. “On paper, Thomas should have never lived but here he is in first grade. We truly see him as our miracle.
“These four children would not be where they are if not for Mott.”
She said it’s been helpful for the four families to bond in their small “four-corner, one blinking light” town. All of them also belong to the same church.
“This is a tight-knit community, the kind where everyone goes to every sporting event, people marry their high school sweethearts and everybody knows everybody,” Leah says. “We all rally behind each other, help each other and pray for each other.”
While other toddlers his age were learning how to kick a ball, climb stairs and identify colors, 2-year-old Brody Smith faced a much bigger feat: battling cancer.
A weeks-long respiratory illness, extreme bruising and signs of losing dexterity ultimately led to a diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which was causing a dangerous overproduction of white blood cells.
Brody was treated in the cancer program at Mott. Just four months after diagnosis, he received a bone marrow transplant to save his life. But his little body experienced complications from the transplant, including the rare and deadly liver disease called veno-occclusive – leading to emergency surgery and a 44 day hospital stay.
As his liver continued to degenerate despite medications, his family had braced for the worst. His father Corey wrote then in a journal entry on CarePages that “Brody’s healing needs to be an ‘obvious’ miracle.”
But then, Brody slowly responded, his body indeed healing enough to go home. The Little Victor just passed his 5 and a half year transplant anniversary.
Today, Corey and Robin Smith describe their son as a “gregarious child who has natural leadership abilities” and loves spending time with neighborhood friends and playing sports.
“They are walking miracles,” his mom Robin says of Brody and his classmates.
What does Brody think about it?
“We were lucky to be alive and thank you to the people who prayed for us.”
Emily Simon says she and husband Brent were just about to take their first baby home when their pediatrician delivered shocking news. Something was wrong with his skull.
Kaine had a condition called craniosynostosis, which meant the bones of his skull in his head were fused shut, leading to an abnormal head shape and the potential for not leaving any room for his brain to grow. He was referred to specialists in the Craniofacial Anomalies Program at Mott.
At just five months old, Kaine underwent an eight-hour operation that required cutting his scalp from ear to ear to allow the surgeons to separate and reshape the bones in his head. Doctors also separated the bones in a way that would help to keep them from fusing back together.
“It was so overwhelming having our first child need a major surgery so early in life,” Emily remembers.
“Just the scar on his head – otherwise Kaine has no memory of the surgery or anything afterwards,” Emily says. “Considering the big picture, we are so blessed.”
Kaine may be a Little Victor but his team of choice sports green and white. He also likes to hunt, play with his brothers and sisters and help out on his family’s dairy farm.
“The connections are so strange,” Emily says of meeting the other families. “Kaine, Brody and Maddie were all born in October, 2008. Thomas was airlifted to U- M the day after Kaine’s surgery. I passed Thomas’s parents in the hallways before really knowing them.”
“We are so blessed by the community that we have,” she adds. “These four kids are doing as well as they are because of the support, prayers and love from our family, friends and community.”