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Baby Alivia's Christmas

December 22, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

Surgeons have fixed his infant daughter's heart in two difficult operations, but Hagerstown's Jimmy Koontz isn't sure anyone can fix his 1978 pickup truck.

It's the latest bump on life's road for the Koontz family, whom I met in February, shortly after they learned that their unborn child had been diagnosed with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, or HLHS for short.

They were told then that the child, named Alivia May, would require three surgeries in all to allow the right side of her heart to do the work that the left side can't.

Two of the surgeries have been completed successfully and the family was hoping that for a while, at least, they could take a breather from a life that has seen more ups and downs than a hyperactive kid on a pogo stick.

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But now Jimmy's pickup has finally come to the point where duct tape and shade-tree mechanic work won't make it go any longer.

It's a big problem because his wife Angela's 2000 Neon has two-wheel drive. Even if he wanted to leave her without a car - which he doesn't - he needs a four-wheeler to commute to his job at Ski Liberty, where the busy times tend to come when the snow is falling hard.

You've got to wonder how they cope, these former high school sweethearts who just wanted to raise a family and a few farm animals on the side.

Instead of the domestic tranquility most of us take for granted, the Koontzes' life is a parade of doctor visits and a batch of emotional reactions ranging from fear that their child will have a serious setback to joy when Alivia overcomes one more medical hurdle.

From the start, the child surprised her doctors. Instead of the sluggish newborn with bluish skin that they expected, Alivia arrived - bright pink and feisty - in late March.

The first surgery was done soon afterward at the Nemours Cardiac Center in Delaware. Before the operation, doctors there told the family that not only was her heart malformed, but one lung was undersized as well - and that both lungs were filling with fluid.

Despite that, the child came through the April surgery and returned home late that month.

The second procedure came in early October, and though the family said she had a tough time, she remained more energetic than her caregivers had anticipated. Nurses there even nicknamed the child "Wild Woman" for her habit of pulling out tubes and needles.

Alivia is at home now and doing well, even though the operations that twice cracked open her breast bone have made it difficult for her to crawl on her belly or sit up.

Despite, that, her mother said, "She's quite determined. If she's on a blanket and there's a toy on the other side that she wants, she'll scoot on her back until she can grab it."

Alivia's caridologist recently removed all restrictions, Angela said, so the baby could have her first bath and her first visit to Santa. She didn't like either and much prefers trying to mimic speech - "da da" was her first word - and playing peeka-boo.

Alivia will have a break from further surgeries, her mother said, until she's at least 2 years old and "outgrows" the last procedure that was done.

Even before Jimmy's truck died, Angela Koontz said it had really been stressful for her husband. Winter is his busy time and working so many hours leaves him little time to see the baby.

Nor will New Year's be a time to celebrate, Angela said,

"because then we have to start all over with the insurance and the deductibles."

Because of the dance they do with the insurance company over what's covered and what isn't and how much of this or that bill will be paid, it's tough to know how deep in debt the Koontzes are. It's safe to say it's more than $10,000 at this point.

The Koontzes came to me with great reluctance in February only after it sunk in that their jobs weren't going to begin to cover major surgery and the tons of doctor visits, medicine and other supplies that go with caring for their beautiful, fragile child.

If anyone out there can fix Jimmy's truck or can sell him another four-wheeler he can afford, please e-mail me at bobm@herald-mail.com or call me at 301-791-7622 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays.

If you can't help with the truck, please consider sending a check for the family to Shiloh United Methodist Church, 19731 Shiloh Church Road, Hagerstown, MD 21742.

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