Daviot Kelly, Staff Reporter
When the starter's pistol officially commences the PanCaribbean Sigma Corporate Run on Sunday, cheering on the participants will be Shaniel Roberts and her three-year-old son, Justin Watson.
This year, Chain of Hope Jamaica is the beneficiary of the run, focusing on saving the lives of children with heart defects. The goal is to raise $50 million, which will support the development of the cardiac unit at the Bustamante Hospital for Children. Roberts and Justin know the cardiac unit very well. Three weeks after he was born in 2008, Roberts knew something wasn't right with her firstborn.
"He was always wheezing, and I wasn't comfortable with that," she recalled. She returned to the doctors. The diagnosis: Justin had two heart conditions - ventricular septal defect and patent ductus arteriosus, both caused by a hole in his heart.
"When I heard, I knew it was life or death. I didn't know what to do, I was confused," she said.
Doctors didn't immediately try surgery. Instead, they prescribed medication for 'Baby Justin', as he became known to the hospital staff. Caring for Justin was a full-time vigil as he was an active child despite his condition.
"I was always nervous because there are many things I had to look out for. I couldn't bathe him in cold water because he would turn blue. He couldn't be out in the sun too long. Sometimes at nights, his heart would be racing. I couldn't work because the boss couldn't work with my hours. I had to stay home with him," she recalled.
Her mother helped out when she could, but a month before Justin's second birthday, doctors gave her the bad news. Surgery was now the only option.
"It was obvious that the medication wasn't working, and I had a real fear that I would lose him," she said. "I didn't know where the money was coming from."
Every year, approximately 400 children are born in Jamaica with congenital heart defects and about 80 of them die from complications that can be avoided with proper medical assistance. Justin seemed set to join them, but the charity cycle race in 2010, led by then-Red Stripe boss Alan Barnes, raised nearly $3 million, and Roberts soon received news that the life-saving cardiac surgery would be performed at no cost to the family.
Road to recovery
She remembered the day, September 1, 2010, the day doctors would open her little boy's heart.
"They were assuring me that he would be okay, but I was walking around outside, and it was like it wasn't burning me," she recalled of her wait to hear news. She cried when she first saw him after the surgery.
"He was just lying there. It was just very emotional. I was glad he came through the surgery ... but with all the tubes in him, I didn't even know where to touch him."
Still concerned about the after-surgery treatment, she had to leave him at the hospital that night, and because of the medication, he would drift in and out of sleep. But within two days, Justin was up and about and a week after surgery, he was home.
"He was pretty normal, running up and down. He's a strong baby. I don't know where he gets it from," she laughed.
Justin will be four in July and is now at the Little People In Training Basic School in Linstead and is a happy, healthy child. He has shown no negative reactions to the surgery and subsequent tests have shown no recurrence of the hole.
So on Sunday, Roberts, who is now a volunteer with PanCaribbean, will be doing her part to salute all those responsible for saving her boy.
"I will definitely be there, and Justin too," she assured. "But we won't be running!"
Maybe one day Baby Justin will enter the race, his repaired heart pumping him along.