T.J. Slattery had just returned from a strenuous morning workout when he collapsed in his St. Charles home.
For months, the 43-year-old chairman of the St. Charles Parks and Recreation Board had ignored the warning signs of heart trouble. Now, at 7:17 a.m. on March 20, he found himself spread eagle on the living room floor.
His daughter Taylor was outside warming up her car to drive to Duchesne High School where she is a junior. His wife, Angela, was still in bed, as were their two other children, Dylan, 4, and Lauren, 13. Angela spends several hours a day helping Lauren, who has had cerebral palsy since birth, with her physical therapy, then tends to other family business until late at night.
Taylor walked in, saw her dad on the floor, and thought he was kidding around, but this was no prank. He was having a heart attack.
"I walked in through the kitchen door, made it to the living room, and down on the floor I went," Slattery said during an interview at his kitchen table last Wednesday. "Taylor came back in, and I said, 'Get your mom.' I was brought to my knees with chest pains and shortness of breath. I was literally face down on the floor, and I was trying to get as much oxygen as I could."
Within minutes, Slattery was at SSM St. Joseph Health Center in St. Charles with a team of doctors and nurses scrambling to save his life. Angela called Slattery's mother to come to the house and take care of Lauren and Dylan, who were still sleeping. The next hour was a rush of emotions and tension for the family. Twice, Slattery's heart stopped beating as doctors prepared him for an angioplasty to open the clogged arteries in his heart.
Slattery said he had 100 percent blockage in his right coronary artery and 30 percent blockage in the split underneath the left "widow maker," or left coronary artery. He recalled floating in and out of consciousness and wondering what was happening to him.
"I said a couple of prayers because I thought this is it, and I wanted to make it right with the big guy upstairs," Slattery said. "The next thing I knew, doctors pulled the respirator bag off and I heard someone say, 'He's breathing on his own.' The nurse was doing chest compressions, and she was desperately looking for direction whether to stop or go.
'By that time, all my frustrations about what was going on resulted in me asking, 'Who is the captain of this ship?' My dad said, 'T.J.' And that was his way of calming me down. And then I heard the cardiologist say, 'I'm here, and I'm in control.'"
Angela and T.J.'s dad, Terry Slattery, watched as the hospital staff worked on him. Angela said many thoughts raced through her mind, but she never thought her husband was going to die.
There is a history of heart problems in Slattery's family. Terry had quadruple bypass surgery five years ago, soon after T.J.'s brother, Kevin, had a heart attack at age 29.
A stent was placed in T.J.'s artery to keep it open.
"When your babies are born you're waiting for that first cry, so I was waiting for him to come back," Angela said.
This tumultuous time for the family came just two months after Lauren, a seventh-grader at St. Peter Catholic School in St. Charles, underwent surgery to ease tightness in the muscles in her legs, an effect of cerebral palsy. On Jan. 18, Dr. T.S. Park performed selective dorsal rhiztomy surgery on Lauren at the Center for Cerebral Palsy Spasticity at St. Louis Children's Hospital. Park opened a 3-inch incision in Lauren's spinal cord, then found and cut the nerves that had been sending the wrong message to her legs. The effects of the surgery are immediate and permanent.
On Wednesday, Lauren was texting a new friend who just had the same surgery. It's a long hard road to walk as confidently as Lauren and her parents hope for, but Lauren said she felt better since the surgery. She was able to lift her feet and wiggle her toes for the first time. She undergoes physical therapy four days a week. Doctors told the Slatterys her surgery requires a two-year recovery period.
"People say they would feel lighter, but I don't feel that way," Lauren said of her legs. "I don't feel different necessarily. But it's easier to use them. Before, they were stiff. Now they feel looser."
Cerebral palsy is not a progressive disease but its effects on the body are cumulative. As people with the disease get older and grow, it is harder on their bodies because muscles tighten and cause deformities in the legs and feet. Before Lauren's surgery, there wasn't much her parents could do. They tried Botox injections, but those weren't the answer for her long-term independence. As Lauren began to hit her adolescent growth spurts, her muscles became super tight. As the bones grew they pulled muscles that didn't want to budge.
Angela said there is a wide spectrum to the severity of her daughter's disease, and her condition is considered mild.
"We've been fortunate that she's been relatively independent," Angela said. "She's never needed crutches or a walker to get around. She hit a growth spurt two years ago and we couldn't catch up. We weren't seeing results and were frustrated. You start to think long term; how's she going to get around in high school or college?"
She gets around fine at Strong Tower Ranch in Foristell when she rides Raleigh, one of the horses the nonprofit organization uses to help children with physical and mental disabilities. Raleigh is a big horse at 16 hands, but ranch Director Lori Brooks said Lauren has never been intimidated by his size.
"When he's with her he behaves differently than when he's with other people," Brooks said. "She's stumbled in front of him, and he stops and watches her and puts his head down and waits for her to get up. He puts his head and neck around her when she's near him. It's like he takes care of her."
Lauren is finishing this semester at home, and her parents are grateful the school has worked with them so she can finish seventh grade. Ripped away from her classmates and unsure what her academic future holds, Lauren depends on her trips to the ranch to be around friends and, of course, Raleigh. Lauren teared up when she talked about the ranch and the horse she loves.
"They're so much like a person," Lauren said. "Not many people realize how they share the same feelings as us. Most of the horses where I ride are rescues. A year ago they could have been in a field starving to death."
Brooks said Lauren started visiting the ranch for horse-riding lessons a few years ago. Brooks knows the Slatterys because they attend the same parish. She said she always wanted a chance to help Lauren.
"She's shown the desire to be with other girls her age, and that's moved her to the next program," Brooks said. "From there these girls excel and become a leader. The pay-it-forward mentality is for someone who has reached out and made a difference in their life and they want to give back."
Angela said the last few months have been hectic and stressful for the whole family, but they're guided by their faith and love for each other. She said there is no room for giving up. T.J. said he has made several lifestyle changes to keep his heart healthy and realizes that with kids ages 4 to 17, there is a lot of life left to live.
"You go day by day," Angela said. "You can't stress about it too much, or think too far ahead. You think about what needs to be done."