In 1986, Robbie Cardin became Norton Children’s and Kentucky’s first heart transplant patient. As you can imagine, his plight was covered by the media. Robbie was referred to as “Baby Calvin” to protect his family’s privacy.
Robbie was born by cesarean section at Hardin Memorial Hospital in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Doctors knew right away something was wrong, and he was transported to Norton Children’s Hospital for evaluation.
Robbie was diagnosed with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a condition in which the left side of the heart is too small and weak to pump blood to the body.
Just two days after his birth, Robbie had open-heart surgery in hopes of correcting the congenital heart defect.
“Within a couple of days, the doctors came in and said they needed to talk to us,” Robbie’s mother, Patricia Cardin, said. “They told us Robbie needed a heart transplant.”
From that point on, they were on a mission to find a heart for Robbie. Fortunately, he waited only 21 days.
“I remember that day so vividly,” Cardin said. “Our nurse had told us that she had the next few days off. She said, ‘The only reason you’ll see me in this unit is if we have a heart for Robbie.’ It wasn’t but two days later and I looked up, and there she was. We made eye contact but said no words. Shortly after, we got the call.”
That nurse, Mary Lynne Shackelford, still works at Norton Children’s Hospital today.
The infant whose heart would be donated was brought to the hospital. A transplant team has only 40 minutes from the time a heart is harvested from the donor to place it in the recipient. The surgery took about six hours to complete.
“I knew that somebody had to die for my child to live. I don’t think you actually think about that child; you try to put it out of your mind. You know it was a baby,” Cardin said. “It wasn’t until after Robbie was doing well that I wrote the parents a thank-you letter. I would send them a school picture in a card each year.”
The donor child’s family lives in Pennsylvania, and the two families still exchange Christmas cards and stay in touch.
“Robbie asked me, ‘Where did I get my heart?’ So I told him about the little boy,” Cardin said. “I said, ‘From the very beginning you are extremely special because of this. You aren’t just living for you — you’re living for him too. You need to remember that you got a second chance at life that most people never get.’”
Robbie grew to be a typical 9-year-old boy. He was fearless, all the way up until the end.
“The morning that we lost Robbie, he woke up and said he felt ‘blah,’” Cardin said.
He had just been to the doctor for a virus, but was in otherwise good health, so he was sent to school like any other day. That day, he told his teacher he didn’t feel well and that he would not be back.
“The teacher told us that somehow he knew,” Cardin said. “He woke up sick that night, and we rushed to the hospital.”
It was determined that Robbie’s body was rejecting the heart, a risk that comes with any organ transplant. Nevertheless, he seemed to be stabilized at Norton Children’s Hospital until he looked up at his mother and said, “Mommy, I love you. I love you so much.”
“I told him I loved him too and about that time he fell onto my chest,” she said. “I started hollering for the nurses and doctors.”
They tried for hours to save Robbie, but he didn’t pull through.
News of Robbie’s death spread through the hospital very quickly. Doctors and nurses were crushed.
“Everyone was devastated,” Cardin said. “His surgeon flew in to his funeral service and gave his eulogy.”
Robbie’s family was invited to the hospital’s 125th birthday celebration in January 2017. Cardin was touched by how many people remembered her special little boy.
“If we didn’t have the people here, there would have been no Robbie,” she said. “The staff did everything they could to give Robbie a great life. Once you’ve had a kid here, you’ve got Norton Children’s for life.”