A father's first Father's Day

There was never any question that Bret Baier and his wife, Amy, were having a son. “My wife is a big planner,” said Baier, chief White House correspondent for Fox News. “There was not going to be any yellow.”

But there were some things for which they could not plan. The first few days of their son’s life were nothing short of harrowing.

“It was the highest of highs and the lowest of lows,” Baier said.

This is how he describes the two-day period in which his son, Paul, was born and when doctors discovered a potentially fatal heart defect. A nurse had noticed a blue hue to the baby’s skin and thought he might have an infection. Doctors considered a spinal tap but decided on an eco-cardiogram. That’s when they made their discovery.

There were no ominous precursors to hint at what would happen after Paul was born. The pregnancy was typical, with Amy Baier taking daily walks and having numerous ultrasounds. The birth was normal and, at the time, doctors pronounced the baby completely healthy.

But a day later, that all changed. When doctors discovered the heart defect, it was not a simple one. Paul’s heart was broken in five different ways. It was working backwards, pumping blood in the wrong direction. They said Paul’s heart would have eventually just given out.

Their final diagnosis: The baby had to have surgery or he wouldn’t make it more than a week or two.

Over breakfast last week at the Hay Adams Hotel, just across the lawn from where Baier spends his days covering the White House, the correspondent spoke of the rocky first weeks of his son’s life.

Sunday marks Baier’s first Father’s Day, and he’s as joyful and grateful as a father could be. He still has moments when the emotions from 11 months ago get to him and the tears fall.   

“I’m getting emotional over blueberries and yogurt,” he said, trying to shake off hard memories.

When it came time to make a decision about his son, Baier quickly began researching physicians and found one of the top surgeons in the world. He and his wife would have to wait two weeks for the surgery — the surgeon, Richard Jonas, was flying in from Australia.

The day of the surgery at Children’s National Medical Center — July 12, 2007 — was long and agonizing and full of prayer. The couple’s priest, Father O’Brien from Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown, conducted a service in the hospital chapel while Paul endured eight hours of complicated surgery.

The couple was told there was a 10 percent chance he would die. “They say it all out,” Baier recalled. “There was a chance he could react to the anesthesia, he could bleed too much or the fix to the heart wouldn’t take. I remember sitting in the waiting room. We were holding our breath.”

But it all ended well. The surgeon told them the surgery was successful but as complicated as he’d ever seen.

And post-surgery was as real as it gets. “At the beginning they’d leave his chest open with a clear plastic covering over the heart,” Baier said, noting they could watch their baby’s heart beating. “So it’s a combination of absolute fear that the heart could stop at any moment to awe that you’re looking at the heart beating.”

Paul remained in the hospital for three weeks and passed every check mark that needed to be passed. At 11 months old, Paul Francis, named for Baier’s father-in-law, is thriving and uttering his first rumblings of “Mommy” and “Daddy.” His favorite foods are yogurt and graham crackers.

Baier struggles to find the balance between work and family and spends his early mornings before work playing with his son. “Literally every day I’m sitting on the floor playing [with him],” he says. “If he gets upset and throws something, you’re just grateful you have this day.”

One of the more memorable moments of the ordeal came from President Bush, who personally phoned Baier to wish the baby well before his surgery. “He obviously knew what was going on,” said Baier. “The day before the surgery he called and wished us well and said he was praying for us. It meant a lot to us. We saved the message on my phone for Paul when he’s older.”

Last month Paul had a second surgery to again replace his aorta with a more maturing organ. Doctors say he faces another surgery in five or 10 years —something the parents are not worrying about until the time comes.

Both transplanted aortas came from two different anonymous donors.

“I think about that father who gave my son the aorta so my son could live,” Baier said. “That’s pretty heavy on Father’s Day.”

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