Samantha Sparks

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Samantha Sparks, Indianapolis

“I thought she was going to die.”

Lindsey Badanek was as terrified as a parent can be. Her 16-month-old daughter, Samantha Sparks, was in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health fighting to stay alive. Sam’s lungs had stopped working. Her only chance for survival was to be placed on ECMO, a heart-lung bypass machine only available in the most advanced children’s hospitals such as Riley. “If she had been in another hospital, I’m not sure she would have survived to be transported here,” says Riley PICU physician Brian Leland, M.D.

Just one week before that November day in 2014, Sam was a perfectly normal, healthy toddler. Lindsey took her to the doctor when she started running a fever, and she began treatment for an ear infection. Two days later, Sam’s temperature spiked to 104, but a local emergency room sent them back to their south side Indianapolis home. “That whole night, her fever wouldn’t come down,” recalls Lindsey. “The next morning, she was just lying on the couch. She wasn’t eating or drinking anything at that point. I noticed she was breathing funny.” This time, Lindsey brought Sam to a different hospital, which decided to admit her. When the toddler had trouble breathing on her own and turned blue in her mother’s arms, doctors transferred her to Riley Hospital for Children.

“In a matter of 90 minutes she went from looking pretty rough, to looking absolutely terrible,” says Dr. Leland, an IUDM alumnus who oversaw Sam’s care in the PICU the day she arrived. His team couldn’t get Sam’s oxygen level to a safe place, even with a ventilator. “We had to have our surgery team up within minutes to start preparing her to put the big IVs in that are necessary for going on ECMO,” he explains. “I wasn’t sure she was going to survive to get put on the circuit, so that was a big victory.”

As Sam’s lungs got a chance to rest, Dr. John Christenson and his team from the Ryan White Infectious Disease program at Riley worked to pinpoint the cause of her illness and find the right treatment. (His team, which has been fully funded by IUDM, cares for around 1,800 children with infectious diseases each year.) Doctors discovered Sam had not only a virus, but also an antibiotic-resistant MRSA staph infection in her lungs, which had progressed to necrotizing pneumonia. The bacteria had gotten into her bloodstream causing septic shock, and her kidneys were failing.  

It took an army of Riley specialists working together to save Sam’s life: pediatric surgeons placed the ECMO cannulas; ECMO nurses monitored and regulated her ECMO circuit 24 hours a day; PICU nurses and physicians including Dr. Leland, Dr. Joey Hobson and Dr. Alicia Teagarden oversaw her daily care; nephrologists helped heal her kidneys; pulmonologists cleared her lungs; infectious disease specialists fought the infections; and, blood bank staff helped coordinate plasmapheresis to clean toxins from her blood. As Sam fought to survive, Child Life Specialist Abigail Rainey helped her older sister, Carina, cope with what was happening.

“We are so appreciative when we can have situations like Samantha’s,” says Dr. Leland, who saw her transform “from a child on the brink of death to living a normal, healthy life.” Dr. Hobson adds, “I think we all recognize the delicate balance with these children, and that really spurs us to function well as a team, with everyone involved having the same goal of helping the child get better.”

Today, Sam goes back to Riley for pulmonology checkups, but appears to have no long-term effects from her close call. Her mother has new appreciation for Riley Hospital. “I never expected this to happen, and to need so many people to help my baby because she couldn’t help herself,” says Lindsey.” While her laughing toddler runs across her yard chasing bubbles, Lindsey shares this message for IUDM participants, whose support fueled the program that saved her daughter’s life: “Thank you for everything you do.”

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