Stories about: Dr. Michael Freed

Gretchen’s story: A blue baby and living legend

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Gretchen with husband Phil and son Josh

“I was very lucky to be born when I was,” says Gretchen Hall, talking about her congenital heart disease.

Born a “blue baby” in 1960, Gretchen’s parents were told that her chances of living very long were low. Her parents prayed she would be with them for a year.

Gretchen was born with cyanotic heart disease, the combined result of a number of different cardiac defects that ultimately cause low-blood oxygen level. (When babies aren’t getting enough oxygen, their skin appears blue, which is why they are called “blue babies”). In the 1960s, only a few hospitals in the U.S. were doing heart surgery on children born with congenital heart disease.

Shocked and afraid, her parents didn’t know where to turn. Joel and Ruth Hensel lived in rural Michigan, far from any medical center that could perform the complex surgery that might save Gretchen’s life.

After consulting with doctors near and far, they followed the recommendation of their family general practitioner who told them to go to Dr. Michael DeBakey, a surgeon experimenting with a number of cardiac procedures, in Houston, Texas. In the summer of 1964, Joel and Ruth left their two other young children at home and packed Gretchen, then 3, in the car for the long drive to Houston.

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