At first glance, Tanner Woods appears to be just a normal one-year-old baby boy.
But lift his shirt, and the crisscrossed scars tell the story of a boy who is truly “one of a kind,” as his shirt rightly proclaims.
“He looks great,” mother Monica Woods said. “You would never know anything was wrong from looking at him.”
But when Woods was born on Dec. 13, 2010, he suffered from an extremely rare condition called right isomerism. The syndrome saw Tanner born with his heart on the wrong side of the body, arteries attached backwards, half of his heart larger than the other, and no spleen – among other issues.
Tanner's condition was so tenuous that Monica was taken by helicopter to UCSF Medical Center, where a team of surgeons stood by in an adjacent operating room as she gave birth.
“A year ago, we had zero certainty of what was going to happen to him,” she said.
A challenging year
Tanner's first year has been fraught with challenges.
Days after birth, Tanner underwent his first open-heart surgery, where doctors installed a shunt and corrected blood drainage.
A second heart procedure, in April, rerouted blood returning from Tanner's head and arms to traverse his lungs before entering the heart. In that procedure, complications led to Tanner's left diaphragm failing, his lungs collapsing, emergency repair surgery, and a lengthy recovery.
Until Tanner recovered from that procedure he was not allowed to leave the house. Without a spleen, a common cold could have been deadly.
“He was housebound for six months,” Monica said.
In November, Tanner went back to UCSF Medical Center for the third major surgery of his life – a technically “simple” surgery which removed his intestines, repositioned them in his abdomen, and sewed them into place to prevent further motion.
The Woods, both teachers at Modesto's Summit Charter Academy, scheduled the procedure for Thanksgiving break. But the expected five-to-seven day recovery soon ballooned to 34, as Tanner returned to the intensive care unit and eventually required a second surgery to correct an intestinal intussusception, which sees one portion of the bowl telescope into a neighboring piece.
“Our 34 day stay was a little...” father Jimmy Woods said.
“A little ridiculous,” Monica finished.
A birthday worth marking
That last hospital stay dragged past Tanner's one year birthday. UCSF nurses helped him celebrate with posters, balloons, and toys, but Monica wanted to do something a little more momentous to celebrate.
Tanner turning one doesn't just represent a birthday, she said.
It means an opportunity to put all those who supported him into the same room, to thank them for standing by the Woods family and helping out. For some attendees – friends and family alike – it means a first chance to meet Tanner in person, with disease concerns restricting visits in his youth.
Monica had just one concern in planning that first birthday party: finding the perfect theme.
The standard Disney tropes didn't seem to apply to Tanner. But then Monica stumbled on the perfect theme “Under Construction” – just like Tanner.
With theme in hand, Monica e-mailed Home Depot's corporate headquarters to ask if she could purchase a few of those trademark orange smocks. Within 24-hours, she was in put contact with the manager of the Turlock Home Depot – who donated the smocks free of charge.
Once the Home Depot heard about Tanner, they “adopted” him, Monica said. They sent balloons, gifts, and many workers follow Monica’s personal blog, which offers updates on Tanner's condition. Home Depot even donated build-your-own boats as a craft for Tanner's birthday guests.
“They're really generous,” Monica said. “They said, 'Whatever you need, let us know.'”
Tanner's first birthday party is expected to draw between 90 and 200 people to the Woods' house this weekend – the largest number of people he's ever been around.
Rather than ask for gifts, the Woods asked their attendees bring donations to the Ronald McDonald House Charities. They called the San Francisco McDonald House home for all three of Tanner's surgeries, spending about 75 days at the home.
Both Monica and Jimmy Woods termed the house invaluable. Rather than worry about finding a place to stay in pricy San Francisco, the Woods could focus solely on Tanner – all at no cost.
A look ahead
Tanner's development has been a little delayed by his frequent trips to the hospital. He doesn't walk yet, and his speech is behind schedule.
But, should all go well, Tanner's done with hospital visits for a while.
When he turns four or five, he'll need another open-heart surgery – something Monica admits could be hard to explain to a kindergartener.
And, somewhere between age 20 and 30, Tanner will need a new heart entirely. By that time, Tanner's cardiologist hopes mechanical hearts will have made the necessary advances to become a viable option.
For now, though, the Woods are content to sit back and enjoy Tanner's first birthday – and all that entails.
“I think it means a lot more to me and to Jimmy than just a birthday,” Monica said.
To donate to the Ronald McDonald House, visit http://rmhc.org/
To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.