Christmas on the River: The Special Child

Published 10:06 am Thursday, November 30, 2023

Oliver Sullivan of Demopolis is being recognized as the 2023 Christmas on the River Special Child. The four-year-old has a personality that brightens up the room when he enters and both his mother, Ricki Ann Gandy, and his therapist, Alexandra Pritchett, describe him as an outgoing child who never meets a stranger.

Pritchett said she has only known Sullivan for around three months, but that he’s “already stolen her heart.”

According to Gandy, Sullivan is much like any other four-year-old boy who enjoys meeting new people.

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“He’s your average little boy. He’s loving, he’s sweet, and doesn’t meet a stranger,” Gandy said. “When we walk into the hospital, he greets the Auxiliary ladies at the door. He’s very outspoken and outgoing.”

Pritchett echoed Gandy in describing Sullivan as a bright child who always has a smile on his face.

“He runs our clinic. As soon as he walks through our door, he is in charge. You can hear him running down our hallways, and that’s how we always know when he’s here,” said Pritchett. “But he is always happy. I have never seen him upset. I’ve never seen him have a bad day. He is just truly a bundle of joy and he is always happy.”

While Sullivan is very much like any other four-year-old, he has persevered through health issues ever since he was born.

Sullivan was born at 25 weeks due to his mother having HELLP syndrome. HELLP stands for hemolysis, elevated liver enzymes, and low platelets is a life-threatening pregnancy complication usually considered to be a variant of preeclampsia.

Gandy described HELLP syndrome as the body shutting down and organs failing and is caused by the fetus.

Oliver Sullivan was born at 25 weeks due to his mother experiencing life threatening complications. Photo courtesy of Ricki Ann Gandy.

“They had to deliver him to get my body functioning again. He weighed one pound and eight ounces,” Gandy said. “He went straight to the NICU and the doctors put him on the oscillator. And on day thirteen, they put him on nitric oxide.”

Gandy said Sullivan was two-months-old when he came off of the ventilator for the first time, and they were able to hold him. After that, he went back and forth between the ventilator, the oscillator, and nitric oxide.

Then at five months old, he went into heart failure and the family was sent to UAB where they stayed for about six and half months. During that time, Sullivan was getting therapy, but his sessions were interrupted when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out.

Sullivan’s therapies included teaching him how to use his suck reflex that allows babies to feed from bottles. Gandy said that Sullivan took a bottle for exactly one month, but his doctors believed he was aspirating which caused him to go into heart failure.

“So they took him off the bottle. Well, then we were trying to help him learn how to suck and COVID hit. We kept asking if we could do a G-tube because that was the only thing that was keeping him there,” Gandy said. “And they would because it was COVID and Children’s Hospital was only taking serious cases whereas his case was a selective surgery. Like it wasn’t a surgery that had to be done.”

Fortunately, Children’s Hospital admitted Sullivan in April 2020 where he had his surgery, and the family was able to finally go home. Gandy said Sullivan came home on the G-tube and oxygen. He remained on oxygen for two and half years while they were at home. And earlier in September, Oliver got off of the G-tube.

“We were always told that he would never walk, talk, eat, or anything. He is walking, he is talking and he just learned how to suck, hence why we were able to get the G-tube out because he takes his milk by mouth now instead of his tube. He does not eat solid foods or anything like that, so that’s why we are still in therapy for that,” Gandy said.

Gandy said their family is honored that Sullivan was chosen as this year’s Special Child.

“He is so excited. I have to tell him to be quiet about it because he wants to tell everybody that he’s going to be the Special Child. But he’s really looking forward to it,” Gandy said.

Pritchett said that one she hopes people do is show Sullivan, and other children like him, kindness.

“You never really know what they’ve gone through,” Gandy said. “Looking at a four year old, you would never know the hard times that he has gone through from birth until now. Oliver is very special, not only because of his medical diagnosis and everything he’s been through, but just knowing that he has never met a stranger. He loves everybody. He shows so much kindness, and I just hope that everybody forever shows him enough kindness as well.”