Voices of the NIH Community

“It’s an incredible privilege”

Dr. Ann Kavanaugh-McHugh and Mandy Haynes are longtime friends and colleagues in the pediatric cardiology unit at Vanderbilt University. They talk about what draws them to their work and remember patients that have marked their lives.


Mandy Haynes: I have the best job in the division, because I get to play with kids for about 20 to 30 minutes getting pictures of their hearts, and we have the freedom to do just about anything that we can to keep the patients happy – blow bubbles, juggle, play hide and seek – whatever we can do to get them on the bed first and then to keep them still while we do that.  And then so we get the pictures to you…

Ann Kavanaugh-McHugh: And I’m a pediatric cardiologist so children come in because their parents are concerned that there might be something different about their hearts.  You have to make a friendship with them and you have to engage with them and you have to make them comfortable.  You do get to know them if they’re coming back over and over again, and we really get to share these lives, which is just an incredible privilege to be able to do.

Mandy Haynes: I could talk for hours about the patients, but there’s one that really sticks out.  It was my first patient to come through clinic with a fatal diagnosis.  His parents were with him.  I just fell in love with this kid; he was so cute and he was so nervous and he just needed a buddy.  We just hit it off.  We’d play and tell stories.  He would make up these great stories.  He taught me a lot and he was only 4 years old. 

His mother called for me when he was in the hospital.  I was on vacation and she asked if I could come by, that he would like to see me, so I did.  She left and let me play with him like we used to, I mean, she just left the room, and I didn’t know that he was so close to passing, but the mother did.  She shared those last few minutes.  She said she just wanted me to know the impact that I’d made in his life, but I hope that she knows the impact that he and the entire family made in mine.  I’ll never forget him or that unbelievable act of kindness.

Ann Kavanaugh-McHugh: If you look at what we do, between 10 and 20% of children with congenital heart disease don’t grow up.  We lose them.  We lose the most important thing in someone’s lives and the value of what was lost is just so immense that you never forget that.

I have I guess my own tribute to patients.  The garden is a place in my yard that I put things when there’s been a loss.  You know, things like forget-me-nots and some beautiful bleeding hearts.  There’s this bumblebee who’s been with me for over 20 years.  A mother gave it to me because she said, “This is like my son,” because he had a very complex heart disease.  And she said, “Bumblebees aren’t supposed to fly and neither is he – but he does.”  Unfortunately he didn’t always and we did lose him.  And she told me at one point that he’d had his final surgery in Boston and she had flown there, just to be there again after he was gone.  She said “I just walked up and down the streets because I knew I left him there and I was trying to find him.”

The relationships we have with people from that are just amazing.

This page last reviewed on February 27, 2023