Words: Clint Stanaway, The Age
Photos: Luis Ascui, The Age
A brave boy and a medical miracle
Seven-year-old Sam Gellie is bolting around the living room of his Kew home, chasing his little brother Lewis.
Sam’s joy and happy-go-lucky energy belie his bravery through life-changing Australian-first surgery to tuck his vital organs back inside his small body.
Parents Amy and Mark still can’t believe it.
“There’s a sense of relief and thankfulness really,” says Mr Gellie. “He can just get on with life now, not be restricted, not be held back. He can now walk down the street, play with other kids and not be looked at or touched”.
At her 12-week scan, Amy Gellie was advised to terminate the pregnancy. Sam’s liver, spleen and parts of his bowel, were growing outside his body, a rare condition known as omphalocele.
“We just didn’t know and there was not much hope to be honest. That was a really hard thing to face. We had to keep having faith,” Ms Gellie says.
Upon delivery, paediatric surgeon Michael Nightingale was one of the first experts assigned to Sam’s case.
“When I saw Sam, I knew we were in for quite a journey. He had something I’d never seen before.”
From ICU, baby Sam gained strength.
His vital organs still sat outside his body in a thin membrane attached to his abdomen. Infection was a very real risk, so much so, Sam’s bump was dressed weekly until skin formed over it.
And there was a power of work to come. Surgeons needed to make space to fit Sam’s organs inside his body.
They decided to insert four tissue expanders that acted like balloons, which were delicately and gradually inflated, to create space for the surgery that would follow.
Two weeks ago at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital leading plastic surgeon, Professor Chris Coombs, was the man for the job.
“This was a problem we hadn’t confronted before and then to go through design and operation and have everything go according to plan, it’s always incredibly gratifying,” Professor Coombs says.
It was just the sixth time the operation has been successfully been performed anywhere in the world and the first of its kind in Australia.
“I feel incredibly proud of him and his attitude because he’s been through so much,” says Ms Gellie.
“It was like a soldier going into battle… he knew this was going to be so far. But he did it. He didn’t complain. He just had a determined attitude to get through. He probably knew he was at the end too. Every day I see him look happier.”
Mr Gellie jokes: “He was telling me the other day he is missing his bump because he used to love resting the iPad on it.
“It’s just getting accustomed to how he looks, little functional things he’s learning to appreciate, bouncing the basketball without an obstacle in the way.”