COTR Special Child Saelens kicks off weekend festivities

Published 11:01 am Thursday, December 4, 2014

With a quick flip of the switch Wednesday night, Jacob Saelens lit the Love Lights Tree atop Bryan W. Whitfield Memorial Hospital, kicking off the 43rd Christmas on the River festivities.

Saelens, a student at U.S. Jones Elementary School in Demopolis, is this year’s Christmas on the River Special Child.

Linde McAdams, who oversees the special child selection process each year, said the soon-to-be 9-year-old “has always been special to his family” and this year he is the “most special child for Christmas on the River.”

Christmas on the River Special Child Jacob Saelens lights the Love Lights Tree at Bryan W. Whitfield Memorial Hospital to kick off the 43rd annual Christmas on the River. He is shown with Linde McAdams, who oversees the special child selection process each year.

Christmas on the River Special Child Jacob Saelens lights the Love Lights Tree at Bryan W. Whitfield Memorial Hospital to kick off the 43rd annual Christmas on the River. He is shown with Linde McAdams, who oversees the special child selection process each year.

Saelens, the son of Michael and Brandy Saelens, was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a rare congenital heart defect in which the left ventricle of the heart is severely underdeveloped.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year about 960 babies in the United States are born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome. In other words, about 1 out of every 4,344 babies born in the United States each year is born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome.

As a result of his condition, doctors were forced to perform surgery on Saelens before he was even born. He had a second surgery when he was just five days old, another when he was 7 months old and another when he was 2 years old.

During one of his surgeries he had a very serious complication, which caused a blood clot in his leg that led to the need to amputate the leg.

That hasn’t slowed Saelens.

“He now walks and I’ve seen him run with a prosthetic leg,” said McAdams.

Along with lighting the Love Lights Tree, Saelens will also ride on his own float during the Christmas on the River Children’s Parade.

Bryan W. Whitfield Memorial Hospital’s Auxiliary was also recognized during Wednesday night’s ceremony. The Auxiliary has sponsored the event for 25 years.

“I could spend a great amount of time sharing with you just how much this Auxiliary means to this hospital and this community,” said Arthur Evans, BWWMH acting CEO. “They support this institution tremendously. The amount of time they volunteer and the amount of funds they use to support to this organization is tremendous.”

Following the lighting of the Love Lights Tree, children from First United Methodist Church sang Christmas Carols. Christmas on the River continues Thursday with the Lighting of Public Square at 5:30 p.m. The event also includes the crowing of St. Nick and the reading of the Christmas story at the Square downtown.