This is A.J.
A.J. Gillis and his family live in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. His dad, Joe, calls him a funny, pleasant little boy. He likes to pick on his middle sister and pull his older sister’s hair and he’s always getting into things he shouldn’t be. A.J. just celebrated his second birthday and if you met him today, you wouldn’t know it except for a few subtle scars, but when A.J. was born he had to fight for his life.
This is A.J. two years ago at the IWK.
A.J. was born with a diaphragmatic hernia. His diaphragm didn’t form on the left side and the contents of his abdomen were occupying the space meant for his lungs. Because of that, his lungs couldn’t develop fully and they were very small, making him very sick.
Leading up to his birth, and for four months following, A.J. had teams of people around him, working together to help make him better. One team that was there from the very beginning to the end of his hospital stay was Respiratory Therapy. Respiratory therapists (RTs) are specialists when it comes to airways and ventilation and they used nearly the full scope of their expertise and available interventions to care for A.J.
“Everyone we met at the IWK was vital to A.J.’s care but the RTs were the one component that were present every single day of his journey, given his respiratory needs. But not only were they present, they were very actively involved in his care. They have a very special place in our hearts,” says A.J.’s dad, Joe Gillis.
Jennifer McNeil is a respiratory therapist at the IWK and she was there the night A.J. was born and continued to be a part of his care team.
“I was working in NICU [Neonatal Intensive Care Unit] that night. He is doing so well now, but that wasn’t necessarily what we thought was going to happen that first night,” says McNeil. “At the time, you go into the situation focusing on the job you’ve got to do, but afterwards you think to yourself ‘wow, that was tough’.”
Throughout his four months at the IWK, McNeil and other RTs were involved in every aspect of A.J.’s care, providing multiple interventions and treatments in Birth Unit, NICU, Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, Operating Room, Medical Surgical Neurosciences Unit, including five days of ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation – pumping blood out, adding in oxygen and removing carbon dioxide, then pumping it back into a patient’s system).
“Having somebody on the team that specializes in ventilation and respiratory care makes a big difference in a patient’s life, especially for someone like A.J.,” says McNeil. “His lungs were so small, we would never have been able to manage his ventilation through conventional methods alone.”
Although that was the reality of A.J.’s early life, receiving critical care and experiencing intense treatments, today he’s a happy, healthy toddler.
“He’s doing fantastic. You almost have to remind yourself once in a while what happened to him,” says Gillis. “There are times when he gets a cold or bad cough that we get very anxious because of everything he went through, but time and time again he gets through and is right back to himself. Then he’ll just flash his smile at you and it’s almost as if he’s saying ‘what are you guys so worried about?’”