Producer, Dateline NBC
Sierra Bingham says her 8-year-old sister Lindsey Lou can sometimes be a bit of a drama queen. But if any child has an excuse to be a little dramatic, it is Lindsey Lou. She has lived at the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital in Palo Alto, CA for six months, a small transparent heart pump keeping her alive as she waits for a transplant. Lindsey has spent so much time in the hospital that her room is starting to look a bit like a dorm--a keyboard near the door where she can stand and play music, "Princess" written in silver on the wall above her bed, stuffed animals, a tablet with games. Hanging above her bed is a colorful string of beads, hard-earned Beads of Courage, each one signifying a day in the hospital, a needle poke, test, device or procedure she has endured.
Older sister Sierra knows a bit about drama, too. Six years ago, at age 6, she herself had a heart transplant. After that, her parents, Jason and Stacy Bingham, figured their family was through its big trial in life and anything else that came along would be easy. For six years they were right. And then Lindsey started getting ill, showing the same symptoms Sierra had. Since then, all five of the Bingham kids have shown markers for dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition which can lead to heart failure. Gage, an energetic 3-year-old, already has a pacemaker.
Keith Morrison, a camera crew and I recently spent time with the Binghams as they were preparing for Christmas. They were very excited because a 2-year-old girl they had gotten to know in the hospital was getting her heart transplant that morning. There had been no donor hearts available since August for the kids who were in need. the Binghams expressed no feelings of "why not us", just joy for the gift of life given to their young friend.
I asked Lindsey what she wanted for Christmas thinking I knew what the answer would be -- a heart, of course. I was surprised when she answered, "I don't know". She seemed more concerned about how Santa Claus was going to get into her room to leave her gifts and pick up the cookies she planned to leave for him when there is no chimney. The nurses, she said, told her Santa slips through the stairwells and hallways at night and leaves gifts while the children are sleeping. Lindsey excitedly explained that the nurses have actually SEEN him!
The fact that Lindsey didn't immediately say she wanted a heart for Christmas tells me what a great job her parents are doing of making life inside the the hospital as normal as it can possibly be for their family. They laugh, they dance. Lindsey and her father take a walk each day to find a tiny spider that lives behind a light in a hallway. They've named him Webster. And in the midst of their stress and worry, the Binghams feel grateful for what they have when they see families in the hospital who are struggling even more than they are. They have found it humbling to accept the help that has been given to them and have decided to do the 12 days of Christmas for another ill child. Lindsey sneaks down the hallway each day leading up to Christmas, no small feat with the rolling cart that's attached to her artificial heart following her, and leaves an anonymous gift in another child's room. I guess the nurses were telling the truth when they said they have seen Santa Claus in the hospital.
In Lindsey's room, there are stockings hanging high on a wall. I was touched as the Binghams decorated a 4-foot tall artificial tree in the corner. They'll decorate another at the Ronald McDonald House, where Lindsey's siblings and parents will live until Lindsey's transplant. After the lights and ornaments were placed on the tree in Lindsey's room, Lindsey's brothers and sisters stepped back and watched as she placed the finishing touch on the tree. Her Beads of Courage wrapped around twice.
Jason and Stacy are blogging about Lindsey's journey: www.heartsforbinghams.org