DENHAM SPRINGS -- With tubes strapped to his infant body, Nathaniel Sparks looked his parents in the eye.
The 5-month-old son of Blaine and Pamala Sparks, Nathaniel was born with Complete Atrioventricular Canal Defect (CAVC), a congenital heart disease where the heart doesn’t form properly during the first eight weeks of pregnancy.
In Nathaniel’s case, he was born with holes in the top two and bottom two chambers of his heart, a defect that ultimately led to open-heart surgery Jan. 18 — nearly two weeks earlier than originally anticipated.
Standing inside The Children’s Hospital of New Orleans, Blaine and Pamala looked at their baby boy as he lay in a hospital bed, calm as could be after his 5 ½-hour surgery.
It was at that moment that Blaine said his son looked up at his parents, who’ve had many sleepless nights since their second son was born Aug. 30, 2018.
“He was just looking at us, strapped to all kinds of tubes,” Blaine said. “This kid is resilient.”
Blaine spoke of his son’s resiliency minutes after donating blood in Nathaniel’s honor on Sunday, Feb. 3.
Partnering with The Blood Center, the Sparks family held a community blood drive in front of the Walmart Supercenter in Denham Springs to collect blood for people like Nathaniel, who required three units of blood during his surgery.
It was the Sparks’ way of “paying it forward,” Blaine said.
“We’ve had a lot of people reach out to us,” he said.
Paul Adams, public relations manager for The Blood Center, said 14 people had donated blood an hour into the blood drive, and 60 were expected to come throughout the five-hour window.
With the Blood Center serving more than 30 hospitals across the state — including Children’s Hospital, where doctors operated on young Nathaniel — those donations can go a long way, he said.
“If 60 people are able to donate, that could save up to 180 lives,” Adams said.
Nathaniel was one of those who benefited from The Blood Center, which provides all blood needed for patients at Children’s Hospital, where more than 300 pediatric heart surgeries are performed each year. The Blood Center has to collect 300-350 pints of blood every day to maintain a stable supply, Adams said.
For Nathaniel, those donations have been life-saving.
Blaine and Pamala learned of their son’s condition, often associated with Down syndrome, 15 weeks into Pamala’s pregnancy. The family spent 19 days in the neonatal intensive care unit following Nathaniel’s birth, came home for Christmas, and then returned to Children’s Hospital for a successful surgery in January.
During Sunday’s blood drive, Blaine described Nathaniel as “a normal kid,” one who’s “very active, who talks, and is very smart.”
“He amazes us every day,” Blaine said. “He has his own personality. He tries to talk to you and get his point across. He has Down syndrome, but even at 5 months old, it doesn’t define him.”
Though his surgery was successful, Blaine said there’s a chance Nathaniel may need another as he continues to recover from the initial operation.
“The doctors noticed he had some leaking on the left side of his heart, which they are monitoring right now,” Blaine said. “If the leak is mild, they won’t interfere with it, but if it goes to a moderate to major leak, they’re going to have to go in and fix it.”
For those who were unable to donate blood Sunday but would still like to help, there are still ways to assist the Sparks family — and others facing similar circumstances.
Adams said people can donate in Nathaniel’s name at any of The Blood Center’s dozen locations across southeastern Louisiana. A small monetary donation will then be made to the Sparks family to help offset some of the costs they’ve incurred during their son’s treatment.
“The donations won’t pay their rent or anything, but it can help with some of their expenses, and every little bit helps in something like this,” Adams said.
Locals will soon be able to donate at the Denham Springs Donor Center, which will open its doors for the first time in two years on Tuesday, Feb. 5. The donor center closed after it took in water during the August 2016 flood that damaged 80 percent of the structures throughout Livingston Parish.
The donor center, located at 1971 Florida Ave. SW, will be open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11 a.m. - 7 p.m., Adams said. An official grand reopening is scheduled for sometime in March.
For more information about The Blood Center, call (800) 86-BLOOD or visit www.thebloodcenter.org.