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Parents thankful for child’s recovery

Twenty-seven-year-old Orange native Joseph Powling spent all of his teen and adult years saving people’s lives and properties.

But when the full-time Orange firefighter, who started as a junior firefighter with the force, part-time Warwick police officer, and part-time Lowell paramedic learned his unborn son had a congenital heart defect, he couldn’t do anything to help him — he had to “just wait,” and that killed him inside, he said.

“They told us when Sarah was 24 weeks pregnant that there was a problem,” said the man everyone calls Joe. “I felt so helpless.”

Joe and his wife Sarah said what scared them most, at the time, was that the doctor reminded them that abortion at that stage of pregnancy was legal in Massachusetts.

“It wasn’t an option for us,” he said.

The couple had been trying to conceive their first child for several months before they finally learned on Dec. 4, 2011 that 28-year-old Sarah was pregnant.

“It was awesome and exciting, but finding out so early that we were pregnant made us cautious about telling anyone because of the risk of miscarriage so early in any pregnancy,” said Sarah.

She said she spent the next few weeks having a relatively easy time with just a little morning sickness.

It was an ultrasound in her fourteenth week that turned their excitement to worry.

“It was Valentine’s Day and we had paid extra to have an early ultrasound to find out if it was a boy or girl,” said Sarah. “But, we weren’t out of the woods, we learned. They couldn’t find his second kidney and they said we’d have to have another ultrasound at 24 weeks. We were a little nervous.”

Sarah said she wasn’t terribly upset because her uncle had lived with one kidney much of his life, so how bad could it be, she kept asking herself.

“I wondered why we had to have a problem, of course, but realized there was nothing we could do about it and we should just wait before getting too upset,” she said.

On April 6, they had the second ultrasound done in Lowell.

“They started the scan and immediately found the second kidney,” said Sarah. “We were so excited.”

But this time, the couple’s excitement turned to terror.

“They scanned for an hour and then the doctor walked in,” said Sarah. “She asked why we thought we were there and proceeded to tell us that they were very worried about our son’s heart.”

The couple soon learned their son Joey Jr. had a congenital heart defect known as tetrology of Fallot.

Also known as “blue baby syndrome,” tetrology of Fallot prevented the bottom chamber of Joey’s heart to close completely. He also had a hole in his heart, his pulmonary artery was a quarter of the width it should have been, and his aorta was not working properly.

“It was the most awful experience — we had so many weeks to wait before he was born and there was nothing we could do for him,” said Sarah. “I was crying hysterically when the doctor told us, Joe was trying to comfort me, and the doctor was just scanning and telling Joe to calm me down.”

The couple said the scariest part, at that point, was that the doctor wasn’t really telling them much, so they decided to transfer to Boston and ended up delivering their son on Jul. 27 at Tufts Medical Center.

“We held him for a couple of minutes after delivery and then he was gone for hours,” said Sarah. “They took him to the (neonatal intensive care unit).”

When Sarah was discharged a couple days later, she and Joe stayed with their son the entire time, sleeping in the intensive care unit and spending a lot of time in the “parent room” when doctors were with Joey.

“All we could do while he was there was touch his arm and hold his hand,” said Sarah. “We couldn’t hold him. It was heartbreaking.”

Joe said his son was hooked up to heart monitors and oxygen and all sorts of other machines, but took it quite well, considering.

“He was doing much better than babies with his condition typically do,” said Sarah.

Joey was released from intensive care a week later and went home with his parents to Dracut, where Sarah grew up.

“We had to monitor him every moment,” said Sarah. “We couldn’t let him get upset and cry because that could have caused him to stop breathing and turn blue.”

She said they were lucky because Joey wasn’t much of a crier.

It was when they went to Children’s Hospital in Boston that hope came back into their lives.

“They told us they could fix the problems and he could live a normal life,” said Sarah.

Doctors explained that Joey did well in the womb, because he was “completely safe because he didn’t have to breathe.”

On Oct. 25, just two days before Joey was three months old, he had surgery. It was supposed to take four to five hours, but ended up taking seven hours.

“We tried to distract ourselves and they kept coming out to update us on the progress,” said Joe.

Sarah said friends and family sat with them in the waiting room and others sent texts throughout the day, also helping to distract them.

“We just felt such a lack of control,” said Joe.

“The surgeon finally came out and said everything had gone well and we could see him soon,” said Sarah. “Then, he told us that there had been one surprise and that if he had not found the problem before surgery, Joey would have probably bled to death.”

The Powlings said instead of thinking about what could have gone wrong, they focused all of their attentions on all of the good that had come out of the surgery.

“I had joyful tears streaming down my face — and I don’t even remember if Joe did,” said Sarah. “I was just so relieved.”

After a couple of hours in recovery, Joey’s parents were able to join him.

“The first thing I noticed when I walked through the door, even though he was hooked up to 16 different machines, was his color — he was pink,” said Sarah. “His skin had been so muddy and spidery since birth. He looked really good.”

Today, the wide-eyed, happy boy with a darling smirk, who will celebrate his 4-month birthday on Tuesday, is home and doing well, according to his parents.

“He’s calm and happy and still doesn’t cry much, even with a 5-inch incision down his chest and still some pain,” said his mommy. “They had to break his breastbone to get to his heart.”

She said she and Joe still have to hold their son a special way so as not to hurt him. She said it will take another couple of weeks before Joey is completely healed.

Five days after his surgery, Joey was doing so well that a relative took a picture of him smiling with his 5-inch incision revealed.

That photo when viral after being placed on Facebook and Joey had more than a million “likes” in just a few days.

He and his parents appeared on the Today Show on NBC the week of Nov. 12, hoping to spread awareness about tetrology of Fallot, they said.

“I can’t tell you what this Thanksgiving was like,” said Sarah. “I am just so thankful. We both had so much to be thankful for.”

Sarah said last Thanksgiving she was pregnant, but didn’t know yet.

“I figured I wasn’t, so it was kind of depressing,” she said.

“This year, we had family around and a new life at the table — a new baby boy who will be there for years to come,” said Sarah.

The Powlings said they hope, as the year comes to an end, that parents everywhere take time to appreciate their children and treasure the time they have with them.

“People really should appreciate what they have,” said Joe.

“Today’s stresses are forgotten tomorrow, so don’t waste a lot of time on them,” said Sarah. “Love your children today.”

Joey’s prognosis is good.

He will be monitored by doctors until he is 18 months old and there is a chance he will have to have one more surgery to open up his pulmonary artery a little more. But after that, he will be fine, said his parents.

“We are so looking forward to him living life like a normal kid,” said Sarah. “We are looking forward to regular milestones now, instead of his next doctor’s appointment or surgery date.”

For more information, visit:

To donate to help with Joey’s medical expenses, send a check to: c/o Joey Powling, P.O. Box 382, Dracut, MA 01826. In return, those who donate will receive an awareness bracelet for every $5 donation. (Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope)

One bracelet is red and reads,” Joey Hearts You — TOF Awareness,” and the other is blue and reads, “Don’t Turn Blue, Get a Clue — TOF Awareness.”

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