‘The longest seven hours of my life’— Colleague reflects on her young daughter’s surgery at the Bristol Myers Squibb Children’s Hospital

Bristol Myers Squibb colleague Helene Vitella has gratitude for the care her young daughter received at the Bristol Myers Squibb Children’s Hospital, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

October 05, 2021

Helene Vitella, has been blessed, she says, with unflappable optimism, but, back in 2018, when a pediatrician diagnosed her young daughter, Emily, with pediatric scoliosis, that optimism was truly tested. Her daughter developed the condition between the ages of 10 and 12 and if it wasn’t addressed before her next growth spurt, there could be permanent changes to Emily’s body.

Through a friend, Vitella connected with renowned pediatric orthopedic surgery specialist Dominick Tuason, who performed surgery at that time out of the Bristol Myers Squibb Children’s Hospital (BMSCH) at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He is currently a teaching professor at Yale University. “I really liked his confidence,” Vitella recalls. “He had a real ‘I can fix this’ kind of attitude.”

Emily's Spine model

Once the diagnosis was made, a surgery date for Emily was set: June 5, 2018. At 5:30 AM, Vitella and her daughter traveled to the hospital — few words were exchanged as they quietly listened to the radio. Upon arrival, Vitella was amazed at the speed in which the hospital staff got her daughter prepped and ready for surgery. 

What Vitella and her husband, Tom, were not ready for, however, was the anticipated 3-4 hour surgery painfully stretching into seven long hours.

“My husband was flipping out,” Vitella said. “I was OK — I’ve got the optimistic mom gene. But it was the longest seven hours of my life.”

The doctor and nurses often came to the waiting room to share updates and the surgery status. At last, Vitella’s daughter made it to the recovery room, was up and walking within a few days and ultimately released. 

Now, she’s a happy, healthy 15-year-old with an 18-inch scar up her back and a very unique Halloween decoration. While Vitella’s family knows outcomes vary for patients with this condition, they have found their own coping mechanism in the face of this experience.

“When my daughter was being assessed before surgery, the doctor made a model of her spine, which was all twisted,” Vitella said. “We put it out as a decoration every Halloween.”

Vitella’s optimism and memories of her daughter’s journey take on a bit of a brighter tone. “For this experience, it was like all the stars aligned between our relationship with the doctor, his wife being my friend, the hospital with the name Bristol Myers Squibb up on the wall, it was meant to be.”

20 years of pediatric care and an eye toward the future

Helene Vitella with daughter Emily

Helene Vitella with daughter Emily

Hundreds of stories like Vitella’s have occurred at the hospital, this year celebrating its 20th anniversary. Twenty years ago, a $5 million naming gift from the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation, an independent 501(c)(3) organization, helped establish The Bristol-Myers Squibb Children’s Hospital at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. As the children’s hospital has continued to grow and pediatric medicine has rapidly evolved, the Foundation has provided grants to the hospital, which enabled it to provide world-class care and services to the children of New Jersey.

The most recent support from the Foundation came in the form of a $2.5 million grant that will support the planning and construction of a new dedicated pediatric infusion center. 

“The Foundation’s grant for BMSCH has included the addition of specialized centers, and developing and supporting surgical expertise,” said John Damonti, president of the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation. “The hospital is providing optimal care for children in New Jersey so families don’t have to travel out of the area, and supporting the local community, including our own employees who live and work here.”

Currently, there are many biologic, injectable therapeutics for children, especially immunomodulators that are being used for an increasing number of disorders affecting the immune system. Other forms of infusion therapies are also being used to treat an increasingly wide range of both acute and chronic pediatric conditions, including ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, kidney transplants and genetic, endocrine and blood disorders. 

“The Foundation’s grant ensures that the building and the patients have the best care possible,” Damonti added. “Building the hospital itself is just a small part of it. It’s what is inside the building that makes all the difference.”