A Lifelong Impression: Abby Meets the Doctor That Saved Her Life
The way 16-year-old field hockey sensation Abigail “Abby” Jackson sees it, the same Children’s Hospital Los Angeles doctor changed her life twice.
The first time, James Stein, MD, now chief medical officer, operated on a 3-day-old baby. The second time, more than a decade later, Stein simply met up with his former patient for a cup of coffee.
More on the coffee date in a bit.
Diagnosing a problem
Abby doesn’t remember any of it, but her story began just hours after she was born in the early part of July 2001. She was delivered via caesarian section at her local hospital near her home in La Verne and seemed perfectly healthy immediately following her birth. That night, however, a nurse working in the nursery noticed something about Abby’s breathing that simply wasn’t right.
To be safe, the attending physician ordered a chest X-ray to see if anything about the baby’s lungs seemed unusual. The films came back with staggering news: Abby had a congenital cystic adenomatoid malformation (CCAM), a benign, racquetball-sized lesion in the middle lobe of her right lung.
The middle lobe had collapsed due to compression from the lesion, and because Abby was so small and the mass so large, the upper and lower lobes had collapsed as well. Basically, she had no lung function on her right side.
The on-call surgeon came in to talk to Pete and his wife, Christine, about what needed to happen next. That surgeon? James Stein.
Stein told the anxious parents that he’d have to open up the baby’s chest and remove the lesion and a portion of her lung. He painstakingly explained exactly how he’d approach the procedure. He outlined the risks. And he noted that she’d have to be transferred to CHLA.
“About 15 minutes into it, we finally just looked at him and said, “Um, is she going to live?” Christine remembers. “He was like, ‘Oh, yeah, she’ll be fine.’”
Getting through surgery
Stein’s confidence, however, did not negate the complexity of the surgery.
Abby was transferred to CHLA via ambulance, and when the Jacksons arrived, they were reminded of the gravity of Abby’s situation. Abby’s recovery could take weeks, if not months, they were told, and they were encouraged to move to an extended-stay hotel nearby. Pete and Christine had another child at the time, so that would require lining up extended child care.
All this talk worried Pete and Christine, especially since Christine was still recovering from childbirth. When Abby emerged from surgery breathing on her own, her parents cracked.
“We were in the waiting room and they wheeled Abby out and we saw her with these pumps and a giant incubator and a chest tube, and we both just started crying,” Peter says. “It looked so dramatic. Other families thought it was bad news. But it was so good. We were so relieved.”
Over the hours and days that followed, Abby made somewhat of a miraculous recovery. Shortly after the surgery, her right lung popped open on its own. Though it collapsed the following day, it reinflated again without the need for doctors to do it manually.
Because she healed so quickly, Abby was allowed to leave the hospital a week after she was admitted.
Over time, the upper and lower lobes of Abby’s right lung grew to fill the void that remained from her surgery as an infant. On subsequent visits with Stein over the first years of her life, Abby submitted to a battery of tests to determine her lung capacity. By the time she was 5, her lungs were completely normal. It was like the malformation in her lung never existed, so she stopped seeing Stein altogether.
Fast-forward to 2016: Abby has gone on to excel at athletics, starring as the goalie on her high school’s field hockey team and is in the pipeline to the national team.
Now for the coffee date.
Toward the end of last year, Abby was assigned a project in her sophomore English class: Write a letter to someone who had made a significant impact on her life. Thinking back on all the stories she had heard about her surgery as a baby, she decided to write to Stein.
The letter was a thing of beauty, a personal missive that explained who she was, recounted how he had helped her all those years ago, and informed him about the life she went on to lead. Toward the end of the letter, she revealed that she wanted to meet up with him to chat in person, and requested that they get together soon.
“I didn’t know how he’d respond, but I just felt I needed to write it,” Abby notes. “I had to see him again.”
On a chilly L.A. morning last fall, Abby got her wish: She and her parents met Stein at a Starbucks. Over coffee, Abby read the letter to her former doctor. He asked her what she wanted to do with her life. Her response: She wanted to be a surgeon, just like him.
The news didn’t come as a surprise to Stein; he says that often people who have been in the health care system at one point in their lives have the desire to go back and serve in the system when they’re older. What did stand out to him, however, was Abby’s desire to meet in person and catch up. While he has gotten letters from former patients over the years, very few of them have gone so far as to request a get-together.
“It was so much more meaningful to sit down and connect with [Abby] to hear about what happened to her through the years and her overall outlook on life,” Stein says. “In general, it’s really humbling to see kids as they get older and see the difference we’ve made by providing health care to them when they were younger and sick.”
As for Abby, the future is now. The 4.0 student still has two years of high school left, but already is thinking about premed for college. In the meantime, upon Stein’s invitation, she plans to tag along with the doctor on some surgeries to observe and gain some perspective.
Abby says her early childhood played a major role in her career interests, and notes that someday she hopes to have the kind of impact on others that Stein had on her. She adds that at some point she hopes to track down the nurse to thank her as well.
“I might not even be here today if it weren’t for some of these people,” she says. “It’s pretty amazing when you think about it like that. This experience and all the people who were a part of it changed my life.”
- Matt Villano