'What happens if I don't wake up?'
Heart surgery is scary, especially for a 7-year-old, but all’s well now for Freddie Jacobson’s son Max
March 08, 2016
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
HOBE SOUND, Fla. – It was a typical South Florida summer, warm and inviting. School was out, which would normally mean that Max Jacobson – the uber-active son of PGA TOUR pro Freddie Jacobson and his wife Erika – would spend most of his day playing soccer, riding bikes, perhaps even joining his dad on the course. Max loves golf almost as much as Freddie, once hitting so many balls that he kept getting blisters on his hands, forcing his parents to hide his clubs.
But 2015 was not a normal summer for Max.
A few months earlier, he had been diagnosed with a heart defect called an anomalous origin of the right-coronary artery. Open-heart surgery was scheduled for Aug. 3 in Boston. In the interim, Max was put on virtual bed rest. Too much exertion could be extremely dangerous, even fatal.
So Max was forced to stay inside and play video games or watch movies; eventually he even became proficient playing Super Mario. Occasionally, he’d be allowed to chip and putt on the backyard practice green. But that wasn’t like hitting balls all day. He was not a happy camper.
Meanwhile, Freddie and Erika, along with their daughters Alice and Emmie, tried to make sure things were as normal as possible, even while preparing for any eventuality that might happen. Firefighters came to the house to give the family a private lesson in CPR. They learned to use a defibrillator, too, making sure the life-saving machines were available in public places when they went out.
At night, Max would often curl up on the bed between his anxious parents, neither of whom got much sleep. Whenever Erika did doze off, she’d often wake up and quickly check on Max, touching him to make sure nothing had happened.
A few weeks before the surgery, Freddie and Erika tried to ease the tension with a change of scenery, so they flew to the family homeland of Sweden.
One night before he fell asleep, Max started thinking about the surgery. He had a question for his parents.
“What happens if I don’t wake up?”
His mother’s reply was swift: “Don’t worry about it, you will. They’re professionals. The doctors are professionals.”
But Max, with the clarity of a child, cut to the chase. "Well, my dad is a professional, but he makes bogeys sometimes.”
Erika, desperately wanting to reassure her son, reminded him that golf was just a game. “And the doctors don’t play a game,” she said firmly.
The Jacobsons at home in Hobe Sound
Max was born in 2007 with asthma, and he has a severe nut allergy that has occasionally landed him in the hospital. So probably more than most kids his age, he understood his body and was aware of the cues he was given.
And Max kept having chest pains.
He knew it wasn’t like the asthma that would leave him wheezing and heading to the school nurse for another squirt from his inhaler. This was different, Max told his parents.
They took him to a few doctors, who listened to Max’s heart and lungs, finding nothing that would cause alarm. Because Max was so active, some doctors even recommended a chiropractor or maybe a physical therapist.
"He rides his bike until he's purple in his face,” Erika said. “He goes all in, just like his dad, I guess. He pushes himself."
This was more than overexertion, though.
One day Max was walking around the kitchen on his hands. He suddenly screamed, the pain in his chest sharp, and he lay down on the floor. Erika – for some reason she can no longer recall -- had a pillow in her hands and quickly placed it under his head.
"The whole color, the lips, he was white as a ghost," Erika said. "He got so scared that he felt like someone was actually touching (him) or stabbing (him).
"That was the time that we knew.”
So they pressed on with more visits to doctors. In late May of 2015, after weeks of waiting to get an appointment, Erika took Max to see pediatric cardiologist Dr. David Drossner, who is affiliated with the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital and working in a satellite office. Freddie was on the road, playing the TOUR event in Fort Worth, Texas.
Drossner did a battery of tests and found nothing wrong, but suggested an ultrasound just to cover all the bases. Erika had ultrasounds during her pregnancies and remembers how she would always know when the doctors were paying special attention to something out of the ordinary.
So when Drossner stopped and said he needed to go into another room to run some measurements, she knew something was wrong. “A very surreal feeling,” she said.
When Drossner came back, he explained that he had found a rare coronary artery defect. Max had been born with the condition, but the family had no clue.
"It didn't make it to the right place when the heart was developed in my belly," Erika said.
Max told the doctor that the pain felt like an elephant was sitting on his chest. Turns out, that’s a textbook description, one that doctors often use when they are talking to kids and trying to understand what they are experiencing.
Having heard the diagnosis, Erika made a phone call to Freddie, who immediately headed home. He would not play another event on the PGA TOUR until October.
Together, the couple discussed their options. One of their friends knew Dr. Pedro del Nido, a pediatric heart surgeon at the Boston Children's Hospital, and told him about Max's diagnosis. Del Nido sent the family an email, suggesting they come to Boston for a consultation.
The Jacobsons told Drossner about the email and his jaw hit the table. “This it not just a surgeon,” Drossner told them. “He’s a magician. This is the person everyone goes to to learn.”
Said Erika: “We were just lucky, super lucky. And sometimes you have to be lucky, right?"
Freddie, Erika and Max flew from Sweden to Boston a few days before the surgery. That's when reality struck for Freddie.
"Before that, maybe it just felt like we were always kind of more looking at what was going to happen,” he says, “but now it was going to happen. So that was hard."
Careful to make sure Max wouldn't get sick, the three passed the time between pre-op visits to the hospital with seeing some of the city's historical sites. They were trying to keep Max's mind off what was about to happen to him. "You can't let him know that you're terrified," Erika said.
The surgery was performed on Monday. The waiting for Freddie and Erika was excruciating. It was nearly eight hours before they could see their son.
Sitting in a waiting room with 30 other nervous parents was difficult, and the anxiety heightened each time the door opened and someone in scrubs entered the room.
Finally, del Nido walked in and gave the Jacobsons the good news. Surgery had been successful.
"I don't think I've ever seen Freddie cry so much, ever,” Erika said.
Turns out the surgery was especially well-timed, since an inch-and-a-half of the artery was actually trapped, squished in the wall of the heart.
The surgery was serious -- doctors had to saw through, and later reconnect, five of Max's ribs to get to the heart. A "zipper" about eight inches long stretches down the middle of his chest.
"And eventually all the chest hair will cover it, right?" Erika says with a wry smile, reaching over to touch her son's arm as he raises his shirt to show off his scar.
The first time Max woke up after the surgery, he tried to pull all the tubes out of his body and his arms. He was so strong, so determined, he had to be sedated. The next time the staff was prepared.
"They had some male nurses there because they knew what he had done, and we all needed to hold on, one leg, one arm, because of his strength," Erika said with a smile.
This time, though, Erika and Freddie were able to talk to Max as he came out of the sedation to make sure he remained calm. The breathing tube came out and Max had one question for the doctor.
“Is my heart fixed?”
Replied del Nido: “Yes, Max, it’s fixed.”
Max then fell back to sleep.
“He knew why he was there,” Erika said, “and he just needed to know that it was done."
"Yeah, he couldn't wait for that," Freddie agreed.
Max proved remarkably resilient, spending just four days in the ICU, his parents taking turns sleeping in chairs by his bed. His room was decorated with balloons and teddy bears and monkeys his friends sent to cheer him up.
Still, Erika and Freddie couldn't help thinking about the other children in the 30-bed unit. Two little girls had just had heart transplants and one was finally strong enough to walk, with her mother cheering her on.
They also saw the other side, a family who lost their child. They watched as the family members fell to the ground in agony and grief.
“That’s when you just hold on to your own son,” Erika said. “It was an intense four days.”
Depression is not uncommon for patients after heart surgery. Max, despite his age, was no exception.
"I know one time when the girls were doing something and he said, well, wouldn't you be sad," Erika recalled.
"'The doctors sawed me open and they saw my heart, so I was basically dead, and then they put it together, and here I am. Wouldn't you be sad?' And everyone just got quiet. You're seven years old. I think they know more than we think they do."
Within a month or so, though, Max was back to his old self.
In fact, he soon was pushing the limits -- taking walks in the mornings before school that turned into speed walking and then jogging well before his 10 weeks of post-op inactivity was up. Max even tried to persuade the school nurse to call his doctor to get an early OK for him to get back on the soccer fields and PE class.
Only then did the family start to relax. "That was kind of the turning point (for us),” Freddie said.
Now that his family life was getting back to normal, Freddie started thinking about his professional life. The 2015-16 PGA TOUR season would begin Oct. 18 at the Frys.com Open in Napa, California. As he saw it, there were two options.
“Either I've got to give it my everything, full force physically (and) with the basics again,” he said. “Or this is maybe a wake-up call to spend more time with the kids and maybe not play.
"It's the first time I really considered not playing."
The TOUR had granted Freddie a major medical exemption. He had 11 events to earn 190 FedExCup points or $326,211 (which would equal No. 125 in either category from last season) in order to retain full playing privileges.
Freddie decided to "dig deep" and see what happened. He hadn't practiced for the better part of three months. In fact, he'd only played a few social rounds.
He met with his coach, Sean Hogan, to determine what he needed to work on. He changed his diet and he hit the gym hard again, six days a week. He wanted to get to a point where “I feel I have a game where I can compete again," Freddie said.
Turns out, he got to that point more quickly than he expected.
Freddie persuaded Erika to come with him to the California wine country for the season-opener at Silverado Country Club. Neither of them had been to Napa and he saw the trip as a "half-vacation, half-golf, comeback thing."
And in his first competitive round since May, Freddie shot a 69. He went on to tie for 32nd.
"I was kind of shocked in that when I walked on the first tee and I straight away felt ready," Freddie said. "... I think I was fortunate there because that's one thing you never really know when you come back, if you can get into a rhythm or not.
"But somehow I think maybe it's because we had dealt with so many things over a period of time that maybe that was a sense of being back to normal, being back on the golf course."
Freddie enjoyed getting reacquainted with his friends on TOUR, as well. For months, he and Erika laid low, focused on Max and the impending surgery, but, Freddie said, the TOUR and its players didn’t forgot about them.
"It's a competitive world, and everybody is out there trying to make a living,” he said. “But when it came to it, then they became serious about life. We're all there for each other, you know? It was really cool to see that."
When Jacobson finished fifth at The RSM Classic, the final event of the fall, he had met the criteria of his medical exemption and was fully exempt for the rest of the 2015-16 season. Equally important was being in contention.
"You get the feel, you're in it, TV cameras are showing up again, you put yourself in that position where you get to deal with all the stuff that you deal with when you're playing well," Freddie said. "You don't see any of those guys when you're struggling."
The 2016 portion of the season has brought more of the same. In four starts this year, Freddie has two ties for fourth and currently ranks 22nd in FedExCup points. Considering only the top 30 reach the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola, it’s a great position to be in. Of course, there’s still a long ways to go.
But for Freddie, he’s glad to have a chance to focus on golf, looking forward to how the rest of the season evolves.
He’s also hoping to spend more time with his son on the golf course. Seeing those blisters again on Max’s hands might not be such a bad thing. But they might still have to hide the clubs.