Camanche, Iowa
Iowa vs. Purdue, Oct. 16, 2021

Ayden Gendreau was airlifted to University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital from a local hospital shortly after his birth when doctors detected a heart defect.

“I was terrified for my day-old son, but when the AirCare team showed up, they were there not only to prep Ayden, but to help Ryan (Ayden’s late father) and myself understand what was happening,” Ayden’s mother, Patsy, recalls. “They knew we were frightened and answered all our questions the best they could.”

After numerous tests, Ayden was diagnosed with VACTERL syndrome, an association of birth defects that affects multiple parts of the body, with each letter representing a different abnormality. In Ayden’s case, that included vertebral abnormalities and anal and cardiac defects. The exact cause is unknown.

Ayden’s first surgery was for a colostomy bag when he was just a week old.

“When the surgeon came out after surgery to tell us how Ayden was doing, he looks at me and he goes, ‘How's Mom doing?’” Patsy remembers.  “They're amazing. They make sure the patient's taken care of, and they make sure the family's taken care of."

At just 22 days old, Ayden had a hybrid surgery to correct transposition of the great arteries, a condition in which the two main arteries leaving the heart are reversed, as well as an atrial septal defect – a hole in the wall between the heart's two upper chambers – and ventricular septal defect, a hole in the wall between the two lower chambers.

Ayden with his late father, Ryan.
Ayden being held by his late father, Ryan, from Kinnick Stadium press box

I was terrified for my day-old son, but when the AirCare team showed up, they were there not only to prep Ayden, but to help Ryan and myself understand what was happening.

Patsy Gendreau

“Normally they do (heart surgery) within a few days,” Patsy says. “But since the holes were big enough, it was allowing oxygen to get to his body, and they said we had time for him to get a little bit bigger."

Ayden's scoliosis x-rays
Ayden's scoliosis x-ray
Ayden's scoliosis x-rays with rods
Ayden's scoliosis x-rays with rods.

Further surgeries followed, with rods installed in Ayden’s back beginning when he was 2, to correct scoliosis.

He needed surgery every 6 months to extend the rods until he was 6, when Patsy learned Ayden could have access to cutting-edge technology with “MAGEC rods,” which can be lengthened using powerful magnets, allowing a child to grow without repeated surgeries.

As much as Ayden and his family experienced, their lives were further upended in 2013 when Ryan, Ayden’s father, was killed in a motorcycle accident. He was 35 and left behind his wife; Ayden, who had just turned 5, and Ayden’s younger sister.

“Ayden will talk about him because they used to be buddies. Ryan would take him to preschool every morning,” Patsy says, adding that the two had a Saturday tradition to watch Hawkeye football games on TV in the fall. “I think it kind of caused him to grow up faster. He had a surgery just a few months after Ryan passed, and I remember him looking at me and saying, ‘Don't worry mom, I'm going to be brave for you. I got this, I'm going to be brave.’"

Ayden, who turned 13 this fall, will have another back surgery for permanent rods in December.

“Whenever he meets someone or sees his friends or his family, he's got to go up and give them a hug,” Patsy says. “He likes to make everybody feel like they matter.”

Ayden’s health will continue to be monitored, and Patsy is grateful for his ongoing care at UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital.

“From the custodial staff to the surgeons, everyone is so accommodating and caring,” she says. “The entire staff treats you with respect and they treat your child as if they are their own. I wouldn't want my son to go anywhere else.”

Ayden wearing baseball helmet
Ayden in the dugout after his baseball game.

Specially trained pediatric surgeons provide surgical care at UI Stead Family Children's Hospital covering the complete range of surgical treatments that address congenital disorders and conditions caused by disease or injury.

Twelve current and former University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital patients are ready for the spotlight as the Kid Captain program returns for the 2021 Iowa Hawkeye football season. Learn more about this partnership with the Iowa Hawkeyes football team honoring pediatric patients and to celebrate their inspirational stories.