The Vanderzwaag Family: Part 1

“Every day for the first two months of his life was a fight for life,’” says Rachel, mother to House Hero Maverick born June 7, 2013 with nine undiagnosed heart defects. By the time he was six months old, Miracle Maverick had defied all the odds and survived over 30 surgical procedures.

The Vanderzwaag family – Dave, Rachel, Colten (six years old) and Brody (three years old) – welcomed Maverick in Winnipeg, Man. Rachel had three ultrasounds through her pregnancy and all had been normal, but each lacked the ability to see the heart. Doctors did schedule a scan specifically for the baby’s heart, but it was cancelled when Brody had the flu and Rachel couldn’t reschedule. She feels it was God’s way of sparing her from weeks of worry.

Maverick delivered naturally at 1 a.m. on June 7 and spent precious seconds in mom’s arms, limp and not crying. Dad also had a small cuddle before doctors swept him away and attached him to oxygen.

Rachel was wheeled into the NICU to visit; she noticed that Maverick’s heart seemed to be beating right out of his chest. By 8 a.m., Dave and Rebecca had been told that Maverick would be transferred to a larger, better equipped hospital an hour away. Instead of discharging Rachel, the hospital transferred the new mom as well so that mom and baby would be cared for together.

When Dave and Rachel settled in, they were able to go straight to the NICU and see Maverick. They remember feeling overwhelmed; they Vanderzwaags had no idea of the road that lay ahead.

At 11 p.m., Rachel was granted two hours to hold her son close. Mom and baby enjoyed a restful deep sleep. Rachel remembers thinking that all seemed right with the world even though Maverick’s oxygen levels were still not rising.

A short time later, doctors questioned whether Maverick’s complications were caused by his heart. They reached out to a third hospital with a cardiology specialization, and at 2 a.m. transferred Maverick yet again. This was when Rachel knew that something was terribly wrong. She remembers tears and fearing that two hospitals had been unable to fix her baby and now she had to trust a third to try.

There was no bed for Rachel at the new hospital, so Maverick was transferred and Dave and Rachel opted to stay behind to try to rest for what lay ahead. Instead, they shared conversation and connection through the night. Subject matter ranged from Dave’s strength and optimism to Rachel’s gut instinct that something was terribly wrong.

At 5 a.m., after preliminary testing, doctors decided to airlift Maverick to the country’s best heart specialists at the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton.

After packing quickly and saying a tear-filled good-bye to sons Colten and Brody, Dave and Rachel boarded a commercial flight to Edmonton. They told their boys, who had not yet seen their baby brother, “We have to go to Edmonton to make Maverick better.” They left the boys in the care of Dave’s parents, not knowing how long it would be until they would be together again.

The Variety Club arranged Dave and Rachel’s flight to Edmonton as well as their first two months stay at a hotel. When their hotel coverage ended, their social worker mentioned Ronald McDonald House® Northern Alberta. Maverick’s life was in a very delicate balance and he had been given 24 hours to live on the day when they arrived at RMHNA.

Rachel was devastated. The move into RMHNA reinforced yet again that her baby boy was very ill and fighting for his life. The Vanderzwaags had been told how beautiful and comfortable the House was, but Rachel didn’t care. “When your baby is so sick, you don’t care or even notice. It just doesn’t seem to matter,” she says. They just wanted their baby to be well.

Life has settled into a new normal. Rachel has come to realize how RMHNA impacts families. She has seen and grown to appreciate many small things that make families feel at home in the House: the outside playground that Colten and Brody love to play on, the BBQs that allow families to enjoy traditional summer meals, gift certificates that enable families to spend quality time together, the Syncrude Welcome bags and the meals programs. Ronald McDonald House® Northern Alberta has come to feel at home for the Vanderzwaags.

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