Toddler continues to beat the odds, celebrates 2nd birthday

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There’s cake, superhero décor and personalized t-shirts. The room is filled with joy and life as loved ones gather inside young Cayden Jolliff's home—a room inside Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio—to celebrate his second birthday. In the midst of the celebration, a special appearance is made: the doctor who issued a “Hail Mary” when saving Cayden’s life was improbable nearly two years ago.

Cayden glows with a particular delight that warms the spirit of the nurses who work on the unit. It’s not uncommon for staff to stop by his room to absorb the jubilance displayed so freely from a child who has never felt the invigorating kiss of sun on human flesh. “They know where to come when they need a smile on their face,” says Cayden’s mother, Gretchen Jollff.

Despite the open door policy of Cayden’s room, it’s rare 35-40 people stop by in a short time frame. From nurses to doctors to family, the purpose is clear: celebrate the hospital’s very own superhero. Cayden’s unrivaled strength is unimaginable to most. His path acknowledges the odds, and passionately refuses to accept. “There’s no rule book he follows,” says Mrs. Jolliff.

In November 2014, at an ultrasound appointment near the 20-week mark, Jolliff and her husband were informed that something was wrong with Cayden. He was diagnosed with having congenital diaphragmatic hernia, a birth defect of the diaphragm. CDH is a hole in the muscle between the chest and abdomen that allows the contents of the stomach to rise up into the fetal chest.

Doctors said the chance for survival was 20 percent. The Jolliff's were told they had one week to terminate the pregnancy. They couldn’t. And when Cayden’s liver and spleen moved up against the diaphragm, his survival rate dropped to 5 percent.

“I remember leaving there and my husband and I just sat in our car for 45 minutes letting it sink in,” says Mrs. Jolliff. “At that point it felt as if there was so little hope.” As the reality of the situation set it, it became clear that they could go through the last four months of pregnancy to give birth to a child that probably wasn’t going to live. A scary realization, as Mr. Jolliff describes.

Almost immediately after birth, Cayden was rushed from the Ohio State University Hospital to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. He couldn’t breath on his own. Seven hours after birth he was put on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), which is a treatment that uses a pump to circulate blood through an artificial lung back into the bloodstream.

He came off and then went back on—a rare occurrence. “There was a point in the first few weeks where the doctors told us there was nothing to do,” Mrs. Jolliff says. And when it came time to come off again, with going back for a third time impossible, the doctor said his Hail Mary. And shortly after, 28 days post-birth, a mother held her son for the first time.

“Thank goodness for my husband,” says Mrs. Jolliff. “That first month was a fog for me. Not being able to hold my son and give him that closeness was extremely difficult.”

She couldn’t breastfeed or provide support that falls into the normality of early motherhood. No, instead Mr. and Mrs. Jolliff were learning to adapt to this fragile new life, which included recognizing Cayden’s sensitivity to sound and light.

And now, Mrs. Jolliff, a second grade teacher at Mount Gilead in Morrow county Ohio, stares at her young fighter who reinforces her strength on a daily basis, even when the throes of life mount. “Every day he inspires me. I can be in his room and look at him and everything else seems so minimal,” she says, acknowledging the smile he holds 90 percent of the time.

Cayden is a trach baby. Summer of 2015 he had the procedure, a tracheostomy, allowing him to breathe properly. Additionally, he eats through a gastrostomy tube, which ensures he receives necessary fluid and calories. His journey has been one of relentless perseverance, though Mrs. Jolliff doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge her family’s gratitude and appreciation for the unswerving care provided by the unit. “We know we wouldn’t be here without this hospital,” says Mrs. Jolliff. 

But with Cayden’s birthday comes a move, as the two-year-old is preparing to leave the comfort of a staff that has become a “family” to the Jolliff's. “It’s scary” says Mr. Jolliff, as his brave boy will be relocating to the pulmonary intensive care unit. “Even if he survived, we didn’t expect to be in the hospital this long, but we’re ready for the next step.”

And despite the disconcerting feeling for his parents, Cayden pushes on with unshakeable faith and steady smiles. It’s just another chapter, for him, in a story with a wealth of rich, durable ink prepared to fill the coming pages with tales of uplifting strides. So while the staff works tirelessly to soften the shift, and the Jolliff's ground themselves, you can find Cayden playing with his toy stethoscope, because the doctors need theirs back, and he loves them.

The move isn’t all worries for the family who splits their stay between the Ronald McDonald house next to the hospital and their home in rural Marion, Ohio. Because woven in is the reminder of just how far they’ve come, and how positive the future looks. 

“There was days where we thought we’d never get out of here,” says Mrs. Jolliff. “But we’re closer than we’ve ever been to going home.”

And so, as a door prepares to close and a new venture is underway, Cayden is again draped in the love of a staff that has continuously showed up. Whether for his care or theirs, from the Hail Mary to the heart warmth, his transition is being cared for with tender diligence.

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