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A Father Following in His Son’s Footsteps

Forked River Dad Has Surgery at Deborah More than 40 Years after His Son’s Surgery

Just shy of his 70th birthday, avid fitness enthusiast John Leadem was hiking in Zion National Park, reveling in spectacular views from deep within a canyon and cooling off in a pristine watering hole called The Narrows.

Bryce Canyon4 John at trailhead
The hiking trail the Leadem’s took at Zion National Park, and John at the trail head sign at Bryce National Park.

“I noticed I was stopping more frequently,” he said. “I’m an aggressive weight trainer, but when I got to the bottom of Bryce’s Canyon, I knew something was wrong. I thought it was part of the breathing problems I’ve had on and off ever since contracting Covid early in the pandemic.” John, however, knew he needed to get help.

In retrospect John knows it was a miracle that he and his wife were able to hike out. The pulmonologist he saw back in New Jersey was pretty blunt.

“It’s not your lungs, it’s your heart,” she said.

Elaine and John Leadem cooling off in The Narrows, in Zion National Park

That diagnosis immediately pushed John and Elaine over 40 years back in time to one of the most difficult parts of their lives. Their 43-year old son Shawn was extremely sick when he was born. A catheterization when he was 10-weeks old uncovered a hole in his heart, causing an unusually high amount of blood to flood his lungs. He needed surgery, but was too frail to immediately undergo the procedure. Shortly before his first birthday he received his life-saving operation.

That surgery was done at Deborah Heart and Lung Center, and it also marked pediatric surgeon Dr. Faustino Niguidula’s 1000th heart operation at the hospital. It was a milestone picked up by the local newspapers. Elaine carried the article with her when John came to Deborah for an evaluation.

“Once we knew it was cardiac, there was no doubt in our mind where we would go,” she said. “Deborah saved Shawn’s life. In our minds, there was no other heart hospital to go to.”

Never did Elaine realize how serious her husband’s condition was. After a diagnostic workup at the hospital, John was shocked at what he heard.

John&Elaine w-newspaper
Elaine and John Leadem at Deborah after his operation, showing the newspaper article from when their son Shawn had surgery at Deborah over 40 years ago

“I was told all of my major coronary arteries were severely narrowed, and both of my internal carotid arteries were also 85% narrowed,” said John. “I needed surgery, but the catch was that they had to do both the coronary and carotid surgeries at the same time, and not in a staged manner, because otherwise there would be an increased risk of major complications, including a heart attack, stroke, or death.”

The combined coronary artery bypass grafting and carotid endarterectomy operation required the specialized skills of both cardiothoracic surgeon Ronald Ross, MD, and vascular surgeon Saman Safadjou, MD. The time lapse needed to ensure coordination of both surgeons’ schedules gave John and Elaine some time in the hospital to reflect on their earlier stay more than 40 years before.

“It was really hard,” remembered Elaine. “Shawn was so sick, and they would tell us not to let him cry too long. We had to get him bigger and stronger for his surgery, but I had to feed him with an eye dropper. Finally he was eleven pounds and able to have his operation. Afterwards I lived at the Mother’s Cottage at the hospital for a month until he was stabilized and ready to go home.”

“And although we would have wished otherwise, Shawn’s recovery was long and hard. He had autoimmune problems, poor weight gain, and he developed problematic scar tissues as he got older.”

But the Leadem family would not give up, putting their strong faith to work for them, providing constant care for their son, growing their family with another baby, and juggling the accompanying financial and emotional stresses. Their story is a remarkable one of thriving against all odds. Despite all their personal challenges, John and Elaine earned professional credentials and eventually founded their own counseling center. Shawn also turned the corner and flourished into adulthood. Today he serves as the company’s Partner and Clinical Director. He is also the proud father of three healthy children.

“Our collective experiences shaped who we are, and we have brought insights gained with us into our clinical work,” added Elaine. “Because of all the years of doctors and hospitals, Shawn developed a medically-induced trauma. It is a topic that he shares at professional conferences for other therapists to understand. All three of us bring empathy to our jobs. We have walked in very difficult shoes before and bring that understanding to our work with our patients.”

At the same time they were reflecting on their stay at Deborah when Shawn was young, John and Elaine could not help but worry about his looming surgery.

“I was terrified I was going to lose John,” shared Elaine. “It was almost the same feeling that I had with Shawn.” These were feelings she wrote in her journal, as she tried to steady herself as a young mother.

John, however, drew on his faith. “I was OK to die if it was my time. I just wasn’t OK about leaving Elaine with the work I would be leaving behind.” His personal recovery journey had taught him the importance of using his emotional challenges to be of service to others. He also drew on more than 50 years of sobriety to extend a helping hand to those around him who appeared to be struggling in the days prior to his surgery.

When surgery day came, Elaine and John were as prepared as they could be. The calming reassurances and detailed explanations by anesthesiologist Muhammad Muntazar, MD, combined with the excellent surgical reputations of Drs. Ross and Safadjou, along with the caring and attention shown by the nursing and support staff gave them confidence for the successful surgical outcome that John experienced. A few days after surgery, the Leadems were ready to head home, excited for a low-key but celebratory gathering of family and friends for John’s 70th birthday.

“I can’t believe I am here,” said John. “Climbing Zion I shouldn’t have made it out, but I believe God had different plans for me and us. I am blessed that I came to Deborah where the very best medical care is.”

As to how Deborah compares now and then?

Hands down, John and Elaine agreed. “The feeling of caring, kindness, compassion, and healing is still the same as when we were here over forty years ago. Deborah is a life-saving hospital that truly cares about its patients.”

Deborah Heart and Lung Center in Browns Mills, NJ is an 89-bed teaching hospital that specializes in the prevention, diagnosis, research, and treatment of heart, lung, and vascular diseases. Founded in 1922, Deborah has been a regional and nationally recognized leader throughout its 100-year history, during which time it has healed 2.3 million patients from every corner of the United States and 87 countries in the world. From performing the first open heart surgeries (adult and pediatric) in New Jersey, to running one of the highest volume left-ventricular assist device (LVAD) implant programs in the region, Deborah has stood at the forefront of medical innovation, all while never wavering from its founding mission “there is no price on life.” Deborah is consistently recognized as a leader in patient care from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, ranked among the top hospitals in New Jersey for patient satisfaction; holds a top-tier Society of Thoracic Surgeons rating which places Deborah among the best cardiac surgery programs in the country; and is designated a national Top Teaching Hospital by The Leapfrog Group. Deborah is an Alliance member of the Cleveland Clinic Heart, Vascular & Thoracic Institute. 

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