Christopher Wall came into this world with all the right parts, except that one of them was in the wrong place. His heart was beating outside his body. This was more than a medical rarity. It was a mystery.
In the summer of 1975, Teresa Wall was enjoying her first and relatively uneventful pregnancy. She recalled being in perfect health while carrying her baby, not even suffering from morning sickness. Indeed, when it came time to give birth, Wall was only in labor for two hours. She said there was an air of relaxation at the hospital.
"Everyone was all joking and laughing," she said. And the doctors and nurses teased her, asking, "This is your first baby?"
But the joking suddenly stopped when doctors delivered Christopher Aug. 10, 1975. "It was like a cloud of doom came over," she recalled. "Christopher was born and everything got really quiet, really quiet. The nurses started hustling around."
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Doctors feared the newborn would not survive even one day. Born with an extremely rare heart condition known as Ectopia cordis, Christopher's heart was exposed outside of his chest. His doctors said it is a condition so rare that out of every 1 million babies born, only about 5 to 8 of them will have Ectopia cordis. Many babies with this condition die within their first 16 days, and some do not even survive the birth process. Doctors are still unable to explain why some babies are afflicted and others are not.
"A number of these conditions are caused from genetic and inherited causes but we don't know exactly why some children may carry a particular gene and others don't," said Dr. Victoria Vetter, a pediatric cardiologist at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, who was on staff at the time of Christopher's birth.
Wall was immediately warned that Christopher was born with a severe case of the condition and he may never survive. Her newborn son was rushed to the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit. Without the enhanced medical procedures used today, Christopher's condition came as a "complete surprise."
"Women, unlike today, did not get ultrasounds or sonograms during the pregnancy, and ultrasound was just in the early stages of development, particularly as far as the heart was concerned," Vetter said. "So the doctors did not know Christopher had this condition until the moment he was born. It was a complete surprise."
A team of doctors immediately stabilized the baby, putting him on a ventilator and checking for other abnormalities.
"The heart was made perfectly normally, other than the wall between the two lower chambers hadn't completely formed," Vetter said. "It just simply was outside the chest and pointing straight out."
Since Christopher's heart developed outside his chest cavity, there was no room inside his body for the tiny organ. Combined with the strain that surgery would place on the heart's blood vessels, this made it impossible to reinsert Christopher's heart into his body. Nevertheless, the baby surprised his doctors by surviving his first few days and, then, his first few weeks.