Sonoma Academy student's guest at school: Surgeon who operated on him as newborn

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Look who accompanied high-school senior Logan Ebert to his first day of school last week.

His surgeon.

The highly regarded and ingenious Dr. John Foker didn't fly from Minnesota to make sure the 17-year-old came through his big day OK. No need for that. Though Logan started life with a couple of critical birth defects, he's now as strong and healthy as any kid at Sonoma Academy.

Foker attended the school assembly that launched the new school year because Logan was picked to deliver the student convocation address. He and his folks, Sonoma's Fred and Mara Lee Ebert, invited the Harvard-trained heart and thoracic surgeon to come hear it.

After all, Logan's speech thanked Foker for the gift of a normal life. And it held him up as an example of what can be done by someone who chooses to act rather than let an opportunity pass by to challenge oneself.

Logan told his nearly 270 fellow students he was born in Colorado without most of his esophagus, the tube through which food passes from the mouth to the stomach.

Logan was a newborn receiving nutrition through a tube when his parents hit the library at the University of Colorado's medical school to research the available surgical remedies to "esophageal atresia," among them moving the stomach up into the chest, or fashioning a length of esophagus from an extracted piece of colon.

The Eberts were unhappy with all of them and their potential long-term negative effects. Those "weren't the options my parents were looking for," Logan told his schoolmates.

"Without the help of the Internet, my parents spent weeks poring over the university's medical library books searching for a better answer," he said.

Mara Lee Ebert discovered an article written by Dr. Foker, a University of Minnesota surgeon and professor who mere months earlier had had pioneered a difficult but apparently successful surgery performed on a baby boy with a very similar defect as Logan's.

The baby, only about two months old, was missing most of his esophagus. As Foker commenced surgery on him, he thought he would connect the two separated ends of esophageal tissue.

But when he peered into the baby's chest and saw what he had to work with, he quickly realized the gap was too wide. In his speech, Logan described that moment in the surgery.

Dr. Foker, he said, "had to think of something fast. Like a life-saving new medical procedure in two minutes fast.

"So he stopped, ate a Snickers bar and did just that. In two minutes, ignoring the naysayers in the room with him, he took his groundbreaking medical procedure to a new level and devised an entirely new method ... "

After the speech, Foker, a tall and understated man of 76, said the kid had it essentially right.

What he did with that baby was to place sutures in both ends of the incomplete esophagus and apply tension — not to stretch the tubal tissue but to stimulate it to grow.

"If it's not connected, it doesn't get the signal," Foker said. The tension provided the biochemical signal for the newborn's incomplete esophagus to grow.

After only about two weeks of tension, that first child's esophagus grew enough for Foker to surgically connect the ends. "Nature does it all," the surgeon said.

As soon as they learned about the new surgical remedy to severe esophageal atresia, Mara Lee and Fred Ebert, then residents of Denver, asked several doctors in the area for their opinion of it.

"Four out of five doctors told us it was ludicrous and would never work," Mara Lee said. But she and Fred agreed they were impressed by Foker, the depth of his experience and his clear desire to forge advancements in his craft.

Logan wasn't yet nine weeks old when they took him to the University of Minnesota to become the second patient to undergo the Foker Method. The doctor gives them much credit for the decision to allow a stranger to try to mend their baby with a new and not yet accepted procedure.

"In my mind, it takes a lot of courage," he said.

The surgery on Logan went well. In just 10 days, the tension caused Logan's esophagus to grow enough to be connected, Foker said.

Foker also repaired holes in Logan's heart. The baby recovered fully from the surgeries.

The grateful young man who stood before his fellow students, their parents and the entire faculty on the first day of school stands 5-foot-11 and competes in basketball and track.

"I do feel really lucky that everything worked out," he said.

His friend the surgeon has now performed or assisted with more than 200 Foker Method surgeries. He has taught the procedure at several hospitals around the world and he co-created the world's first center specializing in the technique at Boston Children's Hospital.

He responded humbly in the Sonoma Academy gym when Logan's announcement of his presence brought a prolonged standing ovation.

After his patient's speech, the doctor said, "If at my age you can be inspired, it was truly inspirational."

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