Mike Lawrence: A holiday story

Ellie Zwak walking with a cane and confidence

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Ellie Zwak, 7, enjoys a book with paraprofessional Drew Finkbeiner on Tuesday at Strawberry Park Elementary School. Ellie was born with a heart problem that required extensive surgery and impacted her motor skills and vision, and she has made remarkable progress in the past year.

Mike Lawrence

Call Mike Lawrence at 871-4203 or e-mail mlawrence@steamboatpilot.com.

— Maybe you know Ellie Zwak.

Maybe you've seen her around town with her family or walking through the halls at Strawberry Park Elementary School. Maybe you've heard her laugh, sing or make up a story on the spot.

If you do know Ellie, an exuberant, brown-haired 7-year-old, you know all about the amazing progress she has made in the past year. You know how well she is walking, with a new cane that helps her depth perception, confidence and spatial orientation. You know she grew out of her wheelchair last spring. You know her family gave the unnecessary wheelchair to Humble Ranch, where Ellie is learning to ride horses.

And you know how incredible Ellie's story is.

"We've had a great year," Strawberry Park physical therapist Peggy Hoff said Tuesday. "You should see her ride her bike - she goes really fast."

Ellie also zooms around her classroom, which she knows so well that she can leave her cane by the door.

"Everybody come on in," Ellie said, standing in front of a machine that looks like a typewriter and is helping her learn Braille. "It's time to show you all around."

As Ellie showed off her desk and the computers in Mrs. Knezevich's second-grade classroom, she walked with a careful balance that is miles ahead of her abilities just a year ago, when I had the privilege of writing about Ellie for this newspaper.

The privilege showed me that unexpected accomplishments are nothing new for Ellie.

On Dec. 3, 1999, doctors at Presbyterian/St. Luke's Medical Center in Denver told Audrey and Shawn Zwak that their new daughter had a 1 percent chance to live.

A little more than 8 months old, Ellie had just gone into cardiac arrest after six hours of open-heart surgery. She had been diagnosed with "Tetralogy of Fallot," an extremely rare heart problem characterized by four ailments, including a hole between the two blood-pumping ventricles and a narrow artery.

Dr. David Miller, a cardiologist who was in the operating room that night and who still sees Ellie once a year for check-ups, said the surgery had two components: widening the artery and putting a patch, made of medical-grade cloth, over the hole in

Ellie's heart.

The surgery went well, and Ellie's fixed heart was sewn together.

Then it stopped beating.

When her heartbeat flat-lined, Dr. David Clark began performing "cardiac massage," literally pumping the tiny heart of an 8-month-old girl with his hand.

Dr. Clark pumped for one hour and 45 minutes before Ellie's heart beat on its own and she was placed on life support.

After two weeks in a coma and three weeks in the hospital, Ellie Ann Zwak came home on Dec. 22 her mother's birthday and three days before Christmas.

"It has kind of changed our Christmas forever," Audrey Zwak told me last year.

Tuesday, Audrey told me that Ellie is becoming much more independent, walking everywhere with her cane and learning to handle the visual impairment caused by a lack of oxygen in her brain during the cardiac arrest seven years ago.

I saw that independence at Strawberry Park, when Ellie enthusiastically told paraprofessional Drew Finkbeiner that it was time to sit down and read.

"Maybe you'll be a teacher one day," Finkbeiner said.

Ellie immediately responded.

"I'm going to be the teacher right now," she said.

The Zwaks have several family members coming to visit their home in Heritage Park for the holidays, a time when many people reconsider what's really important.

Ellie can teach all of us about that.

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