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Close Call

When Ryan Kelly of Eastchester turned 10 last summer, he hoped to celebrate by watching his beloved New York Yankees play the Boston Red Sox. But he couldn’t—he was in Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital at Westchester Medical Center fighting for his life.

Ryan began feeling ill after the Eastchester family—father Neill, 49, a commercial real estate executive; mother Karen, 40, a part-time yoga instructor; and siblings Gavin, 8, and Audrey, 4—returned from a vacation in mid-August. He developed a low-grade fever, which soon got worse and was joined by pain in his right leg.

The family pediatrician at first thought it was a virus. “But a few days later, the fever was not coming down and the leg pain had become excruciating,” Karen recalls. “He then had to have blood work done on his birthday, August 22, which was very depressing for him.”

The blood work showed an infection, so Ryan was referred to a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, who ordered a magnetic resonance imaging (MR I) scan to try to find where the infection was located in the leg.

After the results of the MR I came back, Ryan was taken to Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital. “He was so sick we had to carry him into the hospital,” Karen says. The scan revealed osteomyelitis, an infection of the bone, in his right femur (thigh bone). According to Jose Munoz, M.D., then Chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, Ryan’s infection was extraordinary in its aggressiveness. In a short time, his pain got worse, breathing problems developed and his organs began to fail.

“He could barely lift his head off the pillow,” Karen says. “We were at our wits’ end.” The medical team determined that Ryan’s infection had sent him into septic shock and acute respiratory distress syndrome, or ARDS, which was causing his organ systems to fail. “That’s very uncommon,” says Dr. Munoz.

Ryan was moved to the hospital’s Arlene and Arnold Goldstein Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU), intubated and placed on a mechanical ventilator. Under the care of pediatric intensivist Sree Chirumamilla, M.D.—affectionately known to everyone as Dr. Sree—he battled for seven days. Karen was with him for her 40th birthday, which she calls “the darkest day for us.”

While the pediatric specialists at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital worked diligently to help Ryan overcome this rare infection, the Kelly family sought solace in their faith, asking that a priest be called in to administer the “anointing of the sick” sacrament. 

“We are Catholic, and the significance of that was huge,” she says. “My faith increased 3,000 percent.”

That faith was repaid when she learned later that prayer groups for Ryan had sprouted across the globe. “We had friends send pictures from Italy and Panama, showing candles with photos of Ryan,” she says. “A school class in Florida held a vigil for him. Our local churches all held vigils, and our friends brought us food during the ordeal. It was the most incredible thing I ever witnessed. And I felt support for our faith from all the doctors and nurses at the hospital, which was crucial for me.”

Says Dr. Sree: “Ryan’s was one of the more severe cases. Fortunately, Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital’s multidisciplinary team of infectious disease, orthopedics, nephrology and intensive care specialists was there to coordinate and provide the care he needed.”

The clinical team kept Ryan stable and decided that the best course of action was surgery to remove the infected tissue, including a section of bone. “After the surgery, Ryan got better quickly,” Dr. Munoz says.

Ryan moved out of the PICU and spent nine days in the hospital recovering. He was very weak. “It was a slow process to get him to sit up, then ride in a wheelchair, then start walking again,” Karen says. “I became his personal coach.” But with the worst days over, the old Ryan resurfaced, to the delight of his doctors.

“I visited Ryan on the pediatric floor and was truly impressed with his recovery,” Dr. Sree says. “In the PICU, we get to know children when they’re sick and may only see a glimmer of their personalities. It was nice to see Ryan with his friends and family—the everyday Ryan.”

Ryan was released from Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital at Westchester Medical Center on September 13 and continued his convalescence at home and in physical therapy. He returned to school in early October, finished physical therapy in December and is now back to full strength. He is playing sports again— “he plays too hard for his mother,” Karen says with a laugh—and he needs no medication and has no limitations. He will, however, require regular checkups with his orthopedist to monitor his bone development as he grows.

The psychological recovery has been harder, as the whole family tries to come to grips with the trauma. “It was scary and made me feel sad,” says brother Gavin. “I missed him.” His sister Audrey adds: “I love my brother.”

Ryan himself has been helped by his love of baseball. While still in his wheelchair, he enjoyed front-row seats at a Yankees game in October. “We were right next to the bat boy, and I got free baseballs,” Ryan says. He also received a signed picture of pitcher Mariano Rivera from a relative and a bat signed by slugger Robinson Cano from his school. These gifts were heaven for a young fan, but Ryan was also mature enough to see what lay behind them. “I felt loved,” he says. “That felt really good.”


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