Baby Drake’s new lease on life

Early detection by RRH tech increases odds of survival for boy with rare condition

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Baby Drake’s new lease on lifeAs the New Year rolls in, the Brennan family took time to reflect on their hopes and blessings of the season — primarily another year with their son, Drake, whose very life is a miracle.

The two-year-old son of Peter and Ralinda has hypoplastic left heart syndrome — a rare condition that inhibits the growth and development of the left side of the heart.

As well as providing a story of hope, Baby Drake’s case also highlights some of the challenges for healthcare providers in a small, isolated community.

Three years ago, the Brennans sought out an ultrasound at Ridgecrest Regional Hospital in the early days of Ralinda’s pregnancy. The sonographer detected an anomaly that prompted her to refer the mother to Dr. Gary Satou — a pediatric cardiologist at UCLA, with whom RRH had developed a partnership.

The sonographer suspected that Ralinda’s child had HLHS — a fatal condition if left untreated and dangerous even with early diagnosis and treatment.

Because of privacy protections for patients, lead ultrasound technologist Colette Weimholt knew it was unlikely that she would ever know the outcome.

As it turns out, her professional expertise and insight are among the reasons Drake is with us today.

But the real intervention began even before that, some five to six years ago, Weimholt and Charles Pietrangelo, formerly the head of radiology and presently the director of business development, worked together to bring fetal, neonatal and pediatric cardiology expertise into the community — an endeavor that ultimately yielded today’s partnership with UCLA.

Dr. Satou, a world-class expert in his field, gives lectures all over the world on diseases and conditions of the heart.

At a continuing education conference Weimholt attended last fall, she heard him tell the story of a young boy whose condition was caught early enough to facilitate the necessary life-saving procedures.

The scans Weimholt gathered years ago were a part of that presentation, with permission from the Brennan family. When Weimholt approached the physician after the lecture, he confirmed that the story he told was a continuation of the case she helped discover.

Satou told her that baby Drake is alive and well, adding, “You are probably the reason Drake is still alive today,” recalled Weimholt.

Ralinda and Peter Drake recently agreed to sit down with their son and members of the RRH staff to share the rest of their story.

For Ralinda, the life-changing news hit her in waves — starting with anger and depression.

“Throughout the pregnancy you plan things like photos and baby showers, but I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t want to do anything.” She skipped many of the traditional celebrations of new life while she grappled with the news.

But on the way to her first appointment with Satou, “I just felt calm,” she recalled.

“He explained everything in depth, defined the terms, told us what could happen and laid out all the options.” It was difficult, and emotional, but getting answers gave her the first hint of peace since hearing the harrowing news.

For Peter the news triggered denial at first. “I just didn’t want to believe. I wanted to stay positive and hopeful it was a mistake.”

But eventually the couple decided they wanted to give their son whatever “life” experiences they could — even if it meant doing so while he was in the womb.

“We didn’t know what would happen when Drake was born, so we decided to give him opportunities during the pregnancy.” Every experience carried with it a heightened awareness that it was a gift they could share with their son.

Drake was born at UCLA with two teams on standby. His distress at birth determined his need to go into the operating room immediately, and he had the first of his three-part operations.

Drake stayed in the hospital until he was about a month old. He had his second surgery at age six months and stayed only six days after that procedure. Next summer, he will have his final procedure.

Dr. Satou told the family that they do not need to impose restrictions on their son. “He will set those things himself,” said Ralinda. “He will know when he is too tired to continue.”

Because of Drake’s syndrome, his heart pumps harder than most. “So we know he’s not playing football, but we want to let him do what he wants with the life he’s given.”

“I just want to do everything I can to give him the best chance at life,” said Peter, who has become a voracious researcher about his son’s condition in order to learn how to better understand, and accommodate, his health.

For Pietrangelo and the rest of the team at RRH, Drake’s story is validation that their efforts to extend care options for the community is well worth the investment.

“Unfortunately, outcomes are not always as good as this,” said Pietrangelo. “But in this case, the experts we partnered with, knowing what needed to be done beforehand, were able to correct this situation.

“This is exactly why we have this relationship with Dr. Satou and UCLA.”

RRH has spent the last decade trying to leverage partnerships to bring specialized services — ranging from cancer treatment to psychiatry — to the community. The hospital is currently working with USC to bring urology services here (see related story.)

“We want to bring world-class care to our community. These success stories just enhance that motivation,” said Pietrangelo.

Pictured: Ralinda and Peter Brennan, with their children Drake and Gracie — Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2020-01-10