To Seek Life: Upon My Mother’s Yahrzeit, I Remember

By Sandra Z. Armstrong

Sandra Z. Armstrong Portrait

I was born Sandra Zimmerman, with a ventricular septal defect (VSD) – a hole in my heart. For some born with a VSD, the hole closes naturally. Mine did not. In 1922, Dora Moness Shapiro established Deborah Heart and Lung Center with the motto “There is no price on life.” The surgery would have been $25,000, which my parents could not afford. Deborah Hospital took over the cost, and to this day, patients are charged only through their insurance. Clara Franks, the hospital administrator, lovingly accepted me into the hospital. The surgery was performed by legendary cardiac surgeon Dr. Charles Bailey. At that time, this specific type of surgical procedure had a 50-percent rate of success. Dr. Bailey, a pioneer in his field and an intrepid physician believed that surgery could be performed on the heart just as any other muscle in the body.

Time Magazine Cover Dr. Charles Bailey

Although he faced much criticism among his colleagues at the time, today Dr. Bailey is considered the father of direct heart surgery. In fact, it was he who performed New Jersey’s very first heart surgery at Deborah. I was number eight in the line-up of this pioneering effort.

On March 23, 2019, I celebrated the 60th anniversary of my surgery. I went back to Browns Mills, New Jersey on June 27 to give a speech at their Grand Rounds for fifty doctors and surgeons. I thanked them for my life. I told them that I am now a walking antique of Deborah’s achievements. I gratefully absorbed the unconditional love that went out to both my distraught mother and me for a month before the surgery and a month after. The staff, the doctors, the nurses took care of us because they cared, and they cared no matter who you were or where you came from.

In my speech, I thanked the physicians for my life, as I stood living and breathing before them at that moment. I described the day of the surgery which remained crystal clear to me even though I was only five at the time. Why didn’t I die? I knew that I had a 50/50 chance at life or death. I was a child, but I wasn’t ignorant. I was shocked one day when I overheard the doctor telling my mother the grim facts: “The operation has a 50 percent success rate, if we don’t do the surgery, she will die within the year.”

I remember lying on the gurney and saying a final goodbye to my mother. Her grief overwhelmed me. What did I comprehend at five? I was happy, but I thought how little I knew about life. I had lived for five years, and if I were to die, what would I miss? What would my future be like? I was not old enough to imagine what lay ahead. I understood that this could be the end. I wanted to live for my mother.

As I lay on the operating table, I prayed. Although not having much knowledge of God, I instinctively knew somehow that a greater good existed.

Sandra Z. Armstrong and FamilyI had nowhere else to turn. To my right and my left stood doctors and nurses while scary man-made equipment loomed over my head—men, women, and machinery that would save my life. “If I could live, God, then my mother won’t have to suffer. My death will destroy her. What would become of her, if I were to die?” It was a child’s cry of love for my mother because that was the deepest love I knew. My voice was heard, and my prayers were answered. As I drifted off to sleep with the anesthesia, I did not go into the operation alone. I was not put to sleep until I knew that I would live. How is that possible? I cannot explain it, but God answered my prayers. My mother’s presence sustained me through my illness, surgery and recovery. Her love and devotion caused me to seek life.

Dr. Bailey’s fearless spirit lives on at Deborah. Highly specialized physicians eagerly embrace the most advanced diagnostic techniques and treatments for the benefit of their patients. As a result, they successfully treat patients’ other medical institutions cannot, and are routinely sought after to run clinical trials, evaluate and utilize potentially new medical devices, procedures and medications. I dedicate this article to my mother in memory of her Yahrzeit on Tammuz 29, which corresponds to sundown, July 31.


Letter from Dr. Bailey to Sandy

Dear Sandy,

Thank you so much for your lovely letter. Your happy life with your husband and three children makes an older doctor feel that he was of some good after all. Of course, Deborah is a wonderful place. Just imagine how many people they have helped. As to yourself, I am confident that the hole in your heart is thoroughly closed, healed over. It will never trouble you again. Do help Deborah whenever you can.  It is one of the great health centers of America – perhaps in the world.

My very warmest wishes,

Charles P. Bailey, MD

March 1993

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