August 06, 2002 11:00 pm
MEDICAL MARVEL: Ron and Laura Califf enjoy a light moment with their son, Connor, in La Grande last weekend. Connor is making impressive progress while recovering from a condition known as omphalocele. (The Observer/DICK MASON).
MEDICAL MARVEL: Ron and Laura Califf enjoy a light moment with their son, Connor, in La Grande last weekend. Connor is making impressive progress while recovering from a condition known as omphalocele. (The Observer/DICK MASON).

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

Connor William Califf is only 14 months old but already has achieved star status in the eyes of his parents.

"He's definitely our hero. He has gone through a lot more than we could fathom,'' said his mother, Laura Califf.

Indeed, the La Grande youngster has given new meaning to the word survivor, overcoming the affects of a rare birth condition with a spirit and resilience all his own.

The next time he complains will be the first.

"He's a happy little guy,'' said Connor's maternal grandmother, Peggy Edmunds of La Grande, as she smiled at Connor during his first visit home last weekend.

Connor was born in June 2001 in Portland with omphalocele, an unusual condition that doctors diagnosed before his birth. Connor's chances of living to celebrate his first birthday were shaky.

Because of his condition, Connor's liver and part of his intestines had grown in a membrane on the outside of his body since the skin around his abdomen did not completely close.

Days after his birth, doctors were able to insert Connor's liver and small intestine and close his skin.

Two more operations were conducted later, including a tracheotomy that made it easier for Connor to breathe.

The boy spent the first 270 days of his life at Oregon Health and Science University Hospital. Then, on Feb. 26, Connor was finally able to move into an apartment his parents were renting in Milwaukie near Portland. He was able to leave the hospital after doctors found that Connor did well on a portable ventilator.

Last weekend the Califfs were able to return to La Grande with their son. Save for the tubes he is connected to and a bulge in his abdomen, Connor is like most other 14 month olds. He plays with toys, claps his hands and displays lots of love and curiosity.

The tubes he is tethered to don't seem to bother him, perhaps because he has never known anything else.

"He has grown up with them. He doesn't see them as obstacles. They are part of his body,'' Edmunds said.

Connor needs a ventilator because of a condition known as bronchila malacia. It is caused by the pressure put on his lungs when doctors put intestines partially back into his abdomen.

Because of this pressure, Connor's bronchial tube collapses each time he exhales. The tube reinflates when Connor takes a breath. His ventilator puts pressure on his bronchial tube to keep it open.

The pressure on Connor's lungs will decrease as he grows and more space for his internal organs is created. Connor is growing at the healthy rate of almost an inch a month. He was 18 inches at birth and now is 29 inches.

Doctors believe that they may be able to take Connor off the ventilator by winter. Once he is off the ventilator, doctors will be able to undo the tracheotomy, which will allow Connor to use his voice for the first time.

"We can't wait to hear it,'' said Connor's father, Ron Califf.

Laura and Ron did get a sneak preview of their son's voice when there was a momentary leak in his tracheotomy.

"We could hear him laughing. It was so cute,'' Ron said.

Connor communicates via a simple type of sign language, blowing kisses, clapping and using his eyes.

"He has very expressive eyes,'' Connor's father said.

The boy's vision appears to be fine.

"He likes to look in the mirror. He knows how cute he is,'' said Sarah Edmunds of La Grande, Laura Califf's sister.

When Connor has his shirt off a significant bulge in his abdomen is visible. His liver and intestines are covered with skin but are outside his abdominal muscle.

When Connor reaches age 5 or 6, doctors will insert the liver and small intestine into his abdominal muscle area.

If all goes well Connor, who already has had three operations, may not have to have to have surgery again for another four or five years.

Doctors have been delighted with how Connor has done since he left OHSU in February. He has had to make only one unscheduled visit back to the hospital since then, his mother said.

Connor's status was much different last fall when doctors gave him an antibiotic via an inhalant. The antibiotic caused Connor to go into cardiac arrest and for several seconds his heart stopped. Connor, however, was quickly revived.

Connor is cared for by nurses in Milwaukie 18 hours a day. The Califfs plan to stay in Milwaukie for now because they are close to OHSU and have access to more medical services.

Traveling anywhere with Connor is a challenge because of his 47-pound ventilator and other equipment that must come with him. The Califfs are trying to obtain a mini van that would make it much easier to transport Connor and his equipment. Anyone who would like to help them get a van should call Peggy Edmunds at 963-9897.

The Califfs would dearly love to return to La Grande. They have been moved beyond words by the outpouring of support from the community since Connor was born.

"The gratitude we feel for all the support we have received is something we can not put into words, no way,'' Ron Califf said.

The experience has changed his life perspective.

"This has totally renewed my faith. It has brought us (the family) much closer together,'' Ron said.

It has been an emotional year for the Califfs, one they have not had time to reflect on until recently.

"It is starting to catch up with me. We have been kept so busy. Now I have more time to think about how far we have been from home,'' Laura said.

The opportunity to return home this weekend for four days eased the Califfs' longing.

"When we hit Adams Avenue, it was like a big weight had been lifted,'' Ron Califf said.