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Positively Cincinnati: How community support helped a sick newborn and her family survive

Posted at 8:31 PM, Feb 05, 2020

On Feb. 20, 2019, Ruthie Eleanor Kramer was born blue and still but — impossibly — breathing. Doctors at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital had to operate three hours after her birth to keep her that way.

“They got me down to see her before they transported her to Children’s, and they kept telling me, ‘Talk to her,’” her mother, Karen Burwinkel, said. “‘She can hear you. Talk to her.’ And I couldn’t stop crying.”

Ruthie’s first birthday this month will be an improbable, hard-fought milestone for her family and the community that supported them through the first days of her life.

Then, Burwinkel said, they counted the time they had with her in seconds.

Her heart condition — transposition of the great arteries — cycled and recycled oxygen-poor blood cells through her body and kept oxygen-rich blood from reaching the places that needed it, leaving her blue and weak in the delivery room. The first surgery on the day of her birth could only stabilize her long enough to undergo more operations.

It was hard to endure as a mother, Burwinkel said. She found support in her care team at Children’s, family friends who prayed and donated meals, and in Ruthie herself. The first time she opened her eyes was cause for celebration.

“She smiled a lot,” Burwinkel said. “Those were the moments that gave me the strength to get through.”

At a month old, Ruthie received open heart surgery that put her arteries back in the right place.

Her parents called her “feisty” when WCPO visited their home, and it’s easy to see why. The rosy-cheeked toddler giggles, plays and can even walk if her mother helps her stand upright. Although she can’t speak yet, her parents said they see her enthusiasm for life every day.

“She lives it to a T,” her father, Michael Kramer, said.