It was October 21, 1996, and Shari Cantor had just given birth to her fourth son, Jacob, at Hartford Hospital. At first Jacob seemed to be perfectly healthy. “I was sitting there with this beautiful baby with a perfect Apgar score,” Shari says. “But then one of the nurses came to look at him and said, ‘He looks dusky.’ He was intubated immediately, and all of a sudden things are crashing and he was whisked away. The nurse immediately took him and rushed him down the hall. My husband, Michael, was at the far end of this very long hall, and I saw his shoulders fall and he just kind of crumbled. I thought Jacob had died, and I began screaming. It was all so surreal.”
It turned out that Jacob was dusky because he had multiple heart defects that required specialized care right away. Happily, specialized care was across the street, where Connecticut Children’s Medical Center had just opened. “Connecticut Children’s had just been built,” she says. “Jacob, in fact, was one of their first patients. And thank God it was there. When he 9 months old, he had to get surgery at a hospital in Boston because at that time Connecticut Children’s didn’t do that procedure (though they do now). After the procedure, he was in the intensive care unit, and there were four other babies who did not survive because they had not gotten the immediate and high-quality care that Jacob got at Connecticut Children’s.”
Jacob was born with one functioning ventricle (the lower heart chamber) instead of two, and his main valve to send blood to the lungs was not working.
He was within minutes of suffering brain damage and death. But the nurse’s quick action and the specialized surgery he received at Connecticut Children’s saved his life. These surgeries are far from simple. Jacob received the first one three days after his birth, when his heart was smaller than a walnut. Performing sophisticated, precise surgery on an organ that small and delicate requires extensive training, skill and courage. “The number of pediatric cardiology surgeons in this country who are capable of such complex surgery is small,” says Seth Lapuk, MD, who is Jacob’s current cardiologist at Connecticut Children’s. “It was not that long ago when there was little hope for these patients living past a few years of life. With the great advancements of surgical, critical care and long-term care, the patients with these abnormalities are now the first generation that can expect long and fulfilling lives.”
Over the course of the next few years, as his body grew and could accept more elaborate reconstruction, Jacob underwent several surgeries, and today he thrives with a two-chambered heart instead of the usual four-chambered version.
To meet Jacob, you would never guess he had any kind of deficit. He is a bright, positive young man, with a winning smile, a steady gaze and a remarkable self-possession. A senior at Tufts University, Jacob is studying international relations and political science, and he has traveled extensively, including trips to Israel, India, Spain and an upcoming trip to Cuba (his mother is not wild about all this traveling, and each trip requires advance research into medical facilities in the area and other connections). He also teaches English to refugees from El Salvador. He is focused on social justice and seems primed to make a real difference in the world.
Then there is the running. The entire Cantor family runs in various road races, including the Manchester Road Race, and for a long time Jacob felt like he was left out because his heart couldn’t support that much physically demanding activity. But he was determined not to let his condition get the better of him, and he started training, gradually increasing the distance he could run over a period of many months.
In recent months, he has run nine miles successfully. “In the last race,” he says, “I beat two of my brothers.” And his next goal is to run a half-marathon this year—an astounding accomplishment for a young man who started life the way he did. “I sometimes have to remind myself that I have a disadvantage, because I don’t feel like it most of the time,” he says. “I consider myself fortunate because it’s not present in my everyday life.”
Given the miraculous story of Jacob’s life, it should not surprise anyone to learn that Shari, now the mayor of West Hartford, and her husband, Michael, founder of Cantor Colburn, one of the largest intellectual property law firms in the country, have been ardent supporters of the Division of Cardiology at Connecticut Children’s over the past ten years. They were major contributors to the creation of the Vincent J. Dowling Family Cardiovascular Care Center, which provides a state-of-the-art facility for patients and clinicians. Among the many benefits offered by the center is a large echocardiology lab with dozens of monitors where Connecticut Children’s experts study detailed moving images of a baby’s heart while it is still in the womb. It allows the team to identify heart issues before the child is born so a treatment plan can be in place at delivery and no parent has to wait to see if their child becomes dusky to know he needs urgent care.