A Christmas Miracle

A chance encounter stirs the author’s memory of the man who gave him a new life.

By Ronn Cabaniol

Dec 01 2014


Heathy and happy: the author, Ronn Jos Cabaniol, a few years after his lifesaving surgery.

Photo Credit : courtesy of Ronn Jos Cabaniol

I was born a “blue baby” in a Brooklyn, New York, hospital in 1944. My 19-year-old mother, Jeannette, was scared beyond scared. My 22-year-old father, Buddy, was 3,628 miles away, serving in the Third Army under General George S. Patton. When Buddy returned from the war and walked into the apartment where my mother and I were living, I was 3 years old. My mother told me to give my daddy a kiss. So I went to the coffee table and kissed the picture of him there and broke my father’s heart. We all survived it, though, and six years later Buddy moved us to Rocky Hill, Connecticut, where he purchased my parents’ first and only house for $11,000. During the next five years my mother and I would take the train south to New Haven every six months to Grace-New Haven Hospital (now called Yale-New Haven Hospital), so that I could have an EKG, stand behind a fluoroscope, and have doctors listen to my chest. There really wasn’t anything they could do for my condition during those years. My two doctors, Whittemore and Cameron, tried to be as positive as they could while we all waited for my heart to start enlarging from having to work so hard to push my deoxygenated blood through a pulmonary valve that was 60 percent blocked.

Heathy and happy: the author, Ronn Jos Cabaniol, a few years after his lifesaving surgery.
Heathy and happy: the author, Ronn Jos Cabaniol, a few years after his lifesaving surgery.
Photo Credit : courtesy of Ronn Jos Cabaniol

I remember watching another doctor also checking kids and listening to their malfunctioning hearts with his stethoscope. There were about 600 of us with blocked pulmonary valves who were being observed there at that time, and that particular doctor appeared to be in charge of keeping it all going.

On a July day in 1954, when I was 10, I noticed three doctors heading straight for me. Two were my usual primary-care doctors, Whittemore and Cameron, and the third was that other guy–the one I thought was in charge of everything.

“Ronnie, this is Dr. Glenn,” said Dr. Ruth Whittemore in her affectionate voice. “Dr. Glenn is the foremost heart surgeon in America. He has a very important question he wants to ask you.”

Dr. Glenn stepped forward, looked gently into my eyes, smiled, and then held out his hand for me to shake, which I politely did. “Hello, Ronnie, I’m Dr. Glenn. How would you like it if you didn’t have to turn blue anymore?”


William Glenn, M.D., a pioneer in the field of cardiovascular surgery, in his laboratory at Yale–New Haven Hospital in 1978.
William Glenn, M.D., a pioneer in the field of cardiovascular surgery, in his laboratory at Yale–New Haven Hospital in 1978.
Photo Credit : Courtesy of the Yale–New Haven Hospital Archives

I had the operation. As I would eventually learn, Dr. William Wallace Lumpkin Glenn had developed a new technique for splitting a partially closed pulmonary valve and inserting a device that would enlarge it to its proper size. I was the first child chosen for this new technique. For some reason, out of all of those kids, he’d chosen me–and paid for most of the operation as well. When I woke up a day after the surgery, Dr. Glenn breezed into the room and told me and my parents how successful the procedure has been and that he was confident all would be well.

“But no hospital food for you tonight, young man,” he said with a big warm smile. “Dinner is on me–just name it.”

I thought for a moment. “A medium-rare steak and a chocolate malted milkshake,” I blurted. I can still see Dr. Glenn slapping his knee and breezing back out of the room, chuckling all the way.

That operation was quite a big deal in those days, and I made the front page of the Hartford Times–a picture of me throwing a snowball and a long editorial about the surgery and the genius of an amazing doctor.

I never did turn blue again. I played varsity basketball in high school and went off to Keene State College in New Hampshire, where, besides falling in love and marrying my wife, Susan, I climbed Mount Monadnock dozens of times, and also Mount Washington. In 1975 we moved to Boston. Then, two years later, a friend told us about a small cottage for rent, with a woodstove, at the back of a large field on a hill in Peterborough, New Hampshire. It had a perfect view of Mount Monadnock.

Soon my wife was hired to be one of four nurses taking care of an elderly man living nearby. Gertrude and Edric Weld Sr. were an extraordinary couple. Edric, a retired minister, had also been rector of the Holderness School from 1931 to 1951; he’d kept the school afloat through the Great Depression and World War II. He and Gertrude now lived in a lovely old farmhouse with 500 acres of land at the base of Mount Monadnock. It was a wonderful year for Susan, our young son, and me, living in a cottage with a view of the mountain. But one night, especially, I’ll never forget.

We were invited to the Welds’ annual old-fashioned New England Christmas party. With Victorian-style activities arranged for the children, our son was having a joyous time, while Susan, looking lovely and fresh from country life, was laughing, talking to friends, and rubbing elbows with the likes of senators, mayors, ministers, professors, poets, and painters.

As I wandered from room to room, I heard singing. I strolled into a room where someone was playing the piano, with people gathered around singing Christmas carols. “Ronn!” Edric called to me. “Come here. I’d like you to meet someone.” Edric was sitting next to a distinguished white-haired gentleman who looked to be in his sixties. “I’d like you to meet one of my dearest friends, who’s actually a neighbor of yours over there in Peterborough,” Edric said. “Ronn, meet Dr. William Glenn.”

My heart seemed to stop beating, ironically causing me to begin turning blue for the first time in 23 years. “Are you all right?” asked Dr. Glenn, instantly jumping up with concern. But as he observed my face for a moment and pieces of the past fell into place, he too was suddenly having trouble breathing.

“Is that you, Ronnie?” managed Dr. Glenn, reaching out his hands. “Is that really you?”

“Yes, it is,” I managed, letting those hands of magic embrace me. “It really is.”

“My God, look at you! You look wonderful.”

“Thanks to you, sir. Thanks to you.”

Then Dr. Glenn and I let some tears of wonderment wander down our cheeks.

“And they haven’t changed,” he said as he held me at arm’s length and stared.


“Your eyes–your wonderful eyes. They always spoke of possibilities when you were a boy. And here they are, still speaking of them. The moment I met you, they drew me in and told me that you would be the one for my procedure.”

Then he laughed and touched what he said was my rosy cheek, while Edric continued to wonder why these two men were so lovingly connected.

“The miracles of the Lord,” he said at last, when we’d filled in the details for him.

“I couldn’t agree more,” I whispered.

Conversations about the momentous meeting of Dr. William Glenn and his patient from years before ran throughout the party. When it was over and time for everyone to part ways, I once again embraced Dr. Glenn. We both had tears in our eyes.

“Thank you for my life, sir.”

“You’re welcome, Ronnie–very welcome indeed. But tell me something.”

“Anything, sir.”

“Do you still wash down a medium-rare steak with a chocolate malted milkshake?”