Peter and Libbey Schmitt were second-year veterinary students in the fall of 2012. A young married couple, expecting their first child, their life was already busy with the normal routine of schoolwork and family. Unaware that their lives would soon change in ways that would test them individually and as a couple.
During a routine examination, Libbey’s obstetrician discovered an abnormality during the ultrasound and referred Libbey to a high-risk pregnancy clinic in Des Moines with advanced ultrasound equipment. There, the couple was told their unborn child (Liam) was missing a ventricle and needed to see a specialist. Two days later they drove to the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital, where Liam was diagnosed with tricuspid atresia, with transposition of the great vessels (the aorta and pulmonary artery are switched), coarctation of the aortic arch (narrowing of the aorta) and a ventricular septal defect (a hole in the wall that separates the heart’s lower chambers). It was Valentine’s Day 2013, and week 20 of Libbey’s pregnancy.
“It was incredibly overwhelming,” Libbey said of the diagnosis. “We were so excited to learn we were pregnant and had just started sharing the news.” Her first thought was to wonder what she did wrong. “I knew this had to be my fault, then I realized it wasn’t.” She got proactive, reading every piece of information about the condition, and researching which hospitals and doctors were best at treating this condition. “We wanted to make sure we did everything in our power to give him the best possible chance.”
The Schmitts got a second opinion at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, where doctors confirmed the original diagnosis. They decided to continue care at CHW because they have treated more babies with Liam’s condition.
Libbey was induced on Sunday, June 16, 2013. Just before midnight on Monday the 17th, with a team of 12 doctors and nurses, Liam Ronald Schmitt was born. After a short time with his parents, Liam was moved into the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Within hours, the cardiologist gave Liam an echocardiogram, and confirmed the diagnosis that Peter and Libbey had been given.
Decisions, Challenges and Obstacles
A week later, Liam had open-heart surgery to correct the transposition of the vessels, place an artificial shunt from the subclavian artery to the pulmonary artery and widen the hole between Liam’s right and left atrium. Liam’s care initially required that he stay in the hospital until late July, which didn’t conflict with veterinary school. But, decisions had to be made.
“We sat down with Drs. Claire Andreasen (associate dean for student programs) and Monica Howard (director of student programs) when we returned to Ames,” Libbey said. “Everything was on the table. We discussed discontinuing our education, both of us taking a year off, one of us taking a year off, or continuing as planned knowing that it would be extremely difficult.” With the full support of the college leadership and their professors, the Schmitts decided to continue with veterinary school.
There were plenty of challenges along the way. The first day of the fall semester 2013, Libbey and Liam were taken by helicopter back to Milwaukee so doctors could perform the second surgery. Liam had outgrown the shunt placed in the first surgery. “That was a good thing. Liam was growing at an astounding rate for a baby with a heart condition,” said Peter, who drove up while Libbey and Liam flew.
Peter and Libbey were able to keep up with lectures, which are all recorded with technology installed in the classrooms several years ago. They were also allowed to reschedule exams, and submit a few assignments via email while they were in Milwaukee for a month. When they returned to Ames, a nurse watched Liam during the mornings, and they signed up for different labs so one of them could be with Liam every afternoon. Libbey’s mom would babysit to help give them time to prepare for exams, and Peter’s mom would drive from Dubuque and stay a few days when they needed the extra help. Friends from church and school would help, too.
Their fourth-year of veterinary school was more difficult to manage, especially the summer. Sometimes, Liam sat in on rounds, and classmates took him on stroller rides while Peter and Libbey finished up with patients and paperwork. “We could not have managed without our classmates, and the understanding of everyone in the hospitals,” Peter said. “And, our class was like one big family coming together and everyone pitching in when we needed it. Every single one of them has our deepest gratitude.”
In the fall of their fourth-year, Liam was accepted into a day health-care program where a nurse and care provider were available all day.
The biggest challenge, says Libbey, was that we wanted to put the time into classes and our rotations so we could be great doctors while at the same time wanting to be great parents. “We had to make some sacrifices, mostly sleep, to excel in both,” they said.
DVMs, Jobs, and Childcare
Juggling careers and health care for Liam is a bit more straightforward now after graduating in 2015. Peter is an associate veterinarian at GGS Genetics, a cattle embryo transfer and IVF clinic based in Lansing, Mich. He doesn’t have emergency or weekend duty. Libbey is at BluePearl Veterinary Partners in the Detroit metro where she is completing a small animal rotating internship. A nanny comes to the home Monday through Friday to care for Liam. “We plan our schedules so we can spend as much time as possible for family activities – trips to the zoo, parks, and an area apple orchard/pumpkin patch,” Libbey adds.
“On our first day in the hospital, our nurse told us, ‘This will either make your marriage stronger, or it will tear it apart. It’s up to you.’ We knew we had to face problems as a team or we wouldn’t make it,” Libbey said.
Along the way, the couple learned there wasn’t a problem too big to tackle, as long as they did it together. “We realized how little control we had over things, which taught us to attempt to control what we can, and not worry about what we couldn’t. We put our faith in God, and trusted in His plan for us,” Peter said.
Would they do anything different? “Not a chance,” Libbey said. “Liam has taught us so much and brought so much joy to our lives. Everything happens for a reason,” Peter said.