Infant son of deployed Marine receives new heart

Friday, March 14, 2003

LOMA LINDA, Calif. -- A critically ill baby whose Marine father put duty ahead of family and went off to the Middle East last month received a heart transplant Thursday and could go home within weeks.

Maj. Hal Sellers got the good news by telephone shortly afterward in a brief conversation with his wife.

"It was hopefully a peace of mind to him," Betsy Sellers said.

Four-month old Dillon, born with a heart unable to pump blood, was in critical condition at Loma Linda University Medical Center after a four-hour operation that ended early in the morning.

News of the successful surgery took away one burden from Sellers, a 13-year Marine veteran who struggled in deciding whether to stay with his family as they awaited a new heart or ship out for possible war in Iraq.

Sellers was offered a desk job at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, a desert town 140 miles east of Los Angeles.

Training for months

But he had been training for months as second-in-command of the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion and was concerned about bringing in a new member so late in the training.

In the hospital room with her son Thursday, Betsy Sellers said she wished her husband could return.

"If he can't make it home, I understand that," she said. "I feel bad for him. He's got the harder end of it right now. I get to hold (Dillon) and see him. He can't."

Dillon was 10 days old when he was diagnosed Oct. 31 with a heart defect. Although the condition can often be corrected with surgery, doctors said Dillon's heart was too damaged, and a transplant was his only option.

His condition had deteriorated in the days before the surgery, and doctors had to resuscitate him twice, lead surgeon Dr. Anees Razzouk said. "For Dillon, this comes just at the right time," he said.

The boy had been at the top of the medical center's heart transplant list.

Within minutes of transplanting the heart, Dillon's color began to change from ashen to pink. By late Thursday afternoon, Sellers said her son had awakened. Doctors said Dillon could be home within weeks.

Tears mixed with laughter as his 37-year-old mother expressed her gratitude to the family of the unidentified donor.

'Tremendous' joy

"I feel so much relief and I'm so thankful to the family out there who gave Dillon a heart," she said. "I'm going through a tremendous amount of joy, and there's a family out there going through a tremendous amount of sadness."

She has not yet been able to think about the danger her husband faces.

"I guess when (war) starts, I'll be worried," she said. "Right now, I have to keep my focus on Dillon."

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