What to Know if Your Child Needs Surgery: Expert Advice from an RWJBarnabas Health Pediatric Surgeon


This post is sponsored by RWJBarnabas Health to help every NJMOM and her family be their healthiest.

As a mom, hearing that your child needs surgery brings so many questions, concerns and emotions. In the age of self-diagnosis via good old Google, it’s more important than ever for us parents to have a knowledgeable, reassuring team to guide us through what could be a monumental medical event for our kids. So should moms ask ahead of time, and what kind of care should we be looking for from a surgical team? We got a chance to visit the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center, part of the Children’s Health network of RWJBarnabas Health, to get expert advice from one of the state’s top pediatric surgeons. Plus, we sat down with a mom and dad who just went through the process themselves, with their infant son’s surgical journey. Read on for what every NJMOM should know about the experience.

What it’s like to receive state-of-the-art pediatric surgical care at Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center

When Grachel and Richard David’s son Zeno was born, doctors immediately knew there was a problem.

“The very first thing you want to hear is for the baby to cry,” said mom Grachel, describing the agonizing waiting in the delivery room after her son was born. “We heard him, it was a very short, very small, very weak cry. We didn’t really know what the condition was.”

A chest x-ray showed Zeno had something called a congenital diaphragmatic hernia. “They showed us the x-ray and my heart dropped,” said dad Richard. “We were referred to Dr. Gitzelmann. He reassured us even though it was a serious condition, it was something that he could correct. And he did.”

Dr. Christopher Gitzelmann is the Medical Director of Pediatric Surgery for RWJBarnabas Health’s Northern Region and Chief of Pediatric Surgery at Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center and The Children’s Hospital of New Jersey at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. He says one of the biggest things parents should remember is to let the surgeon take the lead in explaining the condition and common outcomes, as hard as that can be.

“Parents will often in today’s age have Googled the disease, seen what’s available. I always tell parents, let me explain it to you. Usually what you’ll find on the internet is worst case scenarios. We have to put ourselves in parents’ shoes, and say, well what would I think as a parent if I’m coming, and my child needs surgery,” says Dr. Gitzelmann.

Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center’s pediatric surgery program is dedicated to giving families the highest-quality, modern and state-of-the-art pediatric surgical care for their child, in the safest possible environment. The department is comprised of board-certified pediatric surgeons who operate on children from the newborn stage through the teenage years for conditions that affect the digestive system, abdomen, lungs, urinary and reproductive systems. The care team also includes specialized pediatric nursing staff and child life specialists to ensure kids and parents feel safe and informed the whole way through.

Baby Zeno, now 1, is thriving after his surgery

Miracles happen at Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center

Dr. Gitzelmann says for baby Zeno, the prognosis was good from the start, but it was still a complicated surgery that required detailed communication and reassurance for his parents.

“We spoke to them and described the procedure that we were going to perform, which is to repair the diaphragmatic hernia. Essentially what this procedure is is to remove the organs which are located in the chest and put them back into the abdomen,” says Dr. Gitzelmann. “Typically within weeks to months, the lung has grown to an original size. Once the lung takes on the original size, there’s very little that can happen after that.”

For Zeno, that proved true. His progress post-surgery was even faster and more profound than his parents could have hoped. “I can’t stress enough how safe we felt, for Zeno. It was just miracle after miracle and we’re so thankful,” says Zeno’s dad, Richard. “We were told we would stay in the hospital for at least three months, and we were gone from here after three weeks. I’m forever thankful.”

Dr. Gitzelmann says it’s stories like Zeno’s that are incredibly gratifying for the entire surgical team, particularly when the patients come back to visit and are growing and thriving as kids. “I love to do surgery. I love to do complicated procedures,” said Dr. Gitzelmann. “It’s the most rewarding thing, for me.”

For more information on the pediatric surgery program at Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center, visit their website.

Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center, an RWJBarnabas Health Facility
94 Old Short Hills Road, Livingston, NJ, 07039


About Author

Marisa is a mom to two sweet boys and a little lady (all under 4!) as well as one precious girl in heaven and her heart. A true Jersey girl, Marisa loves raising her family here and embracing all that being a #NJMOM has to offer. Whether it's summer days on Spring Lake beach or down on LBI, or heading out to sample some of the state's best eats (Montclair and Jersey City are favs), family days out and about together are her favorite way to spend a weekend. A former news anchor turned on-air lifestyle host and expert, you might also catch her on TV or in the kitchen cooking up something delish for the littles.