Gabriel (“Gabo”) was 7 when he began to have nightmares about death. In each recurring dream, an eagle would swoop down and carry Gabo high into the sky. No matter how far he fell, however, Gabo’s mother, Tamar, would catch him. There’s no way to know if Gabo’s dreams were foretelling the future. Yet one month before his 8th birthday, Gabo experienced a sudden cardiac arrest while playing in the backyard with his big sister, Sophia. When she found him, Gabo didn’t have a pulse.
The police officer who responded to Tamar’s 911 call immediately began CPR and was able to resuscitate Gabo. The family was rushed by ambulance to their local New Jersey hospital, where doctors consulted by video call with a Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) cardiologist. Tamar and Gabo’s father, Alberto, were told Gabo needed a breathing tube and would be medivacked to CHOP. “At that point, I still didn’t understand how serious the situation was,” says Tamar.
The severity quickly sunk in upon the family’s arrival at CHOP. Gabo was placed on ECMO, a heart-lung bypass machine that provides breathing and lung support. He needed to be monitored constantly. “Watching the nurses with him gave me hope,” says Tamar. “I knew that if something could be done to save him, they would be able to do it at CHOP.”
Gabo stayed on ECMO for four days. Once doctors confirmed a sudden cardiac arrest had been the cause of Gabo’s collapse, the decision was made to implant an automatic internal cardiac defibrillator (AICD), which would monitor Gabo’s heart rate and deliver a life-saving shock if an abnormal rhythm was detected.
Discharged just days before his birthday, Gabo returned home to a neighborhood-wide celebration. The police and fire department led a parade, and neighbors, family and friends showered Gabo with flowers and gifts. “There were so many tears, love and positivity,” says Tamar.
A nightmare continued
For a while, it seemed like Gabo’s life would return to normal. He kept up with his virtual schooling and played with his sister. “He was a happy, bubbly child, doing his best to enjoy life,” says Tamar. But Gabo’s nightmares continued. Terrified he would suffer another cardiac arrest, Gabo couldn’t sleep without his mom close by.
Overtime it became clear that Gabo’s energy wasn’t returning. He would tire quickly with activity and grow pale. His blood pressure was often too low, and he failed stress tests during follow up visits at CHOP. A cardiac catheterization showed Gabo’s heart had become enlarged. He was in heart failure and would need a transplant.
A beautiful day
On Father’s Day 2021, the family decided to spend the day at the beach. While enjoying a beautiful day in the sun and sand, they got the call they’d been waiting for: A heart was available for Gabo.
After rushing home to wash off sand and sunscreen, Tamar and Alberto took Gabo to the hospital, where he was met with a celebratory welcome. “His nurses and child life team had made signs and posters for him,” says Tamar. “He wasn’t afraid; he knew something good was happening.”
Back in his dancing shoes
Determined to enjoy his summer, Gabo recovered quickly. For Tamar, one of the most memorable aspects of Gabo’s time in the hospital was the special care provided by the Cardiac Center nurses and child life team. From Uno games to arts and crafts to the special Beads of Courage Gabo now wears proudly on his backpack, his CHOP care team was instrumental in his positive mindset and speedy recovery.
“For him, so much of the experience was about how he was treated,” says Tamar. “Gabo loves CHOP because they listened to him, treated him well and gave him presents!”
Gabo and his parents were home from the hospital within a week, and shortly after, Gabo’s energy began to return. He was soon able to participate in his favorite activities again, including hiking, skateboarding and ballet. Six months after Gabo’s transplant, his family proudly watched him dance The Nutcracker in his studio recital. Grateful for the care that got Gabo back in his dancing shoes, Gabo’s family is participating in the 2022 Philly Spin-In to help raise funds for innovative cardiac research and advanced patient care in the Cardiac Center at CHOP.
Now 9, Gabo has monthly follow-ups at CHOP, where he loves the cafeteria’s avocado rolls and collecting his prized Pokémon cards. And though he still struggles to sleep at times, Gabo’s nightmares seem gone for good.