Tot meets 'the nice man who wears the hat' Heart patient unfazed by president

February 15, 1993|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Staff Writer

Three-year-old Jesse Thiess made a new buddy yesterday. His name? Bill. As in Bill Clinton.

Jesse, who had surgery as an infant to repair a hole in his heart, traveled from his home in Ferndale in Anne Arundel County to Washington with his parents and his big brother, Jimmy, 5, to meet Mr. Clinton as part of the festivities to mark American Heart Month.

Jesse announced the start of a short run in the morning at Hains Point in East Potomac Park, across the Washington Channel from his new friend's house, and presented Mr. Clinton with a book about children with congenital heart defects. The family met Vice President Al Gore and his wife, Tipper, too.

It was a thrill, said Jesse's parents, Jim and Lisa Thiess, who only heard on Wednesday that they would get to meet the president. Jimmy, who got to run with Mr. Clinton, was pretty excited too.

But little Jesse took it all in stride. As far as he was concerned, he was going to go see "the nice man who wears the hat" that he'd seen on TV.

"He's just the same, it doesn't affect him," said Mr. Thiess, 34. "We're trying to explain it to him."

"He knows who he is when he sees him on TV," said Mrs. Thiess, 26. "I don't think he realizes it's such a big deal."

Jesse's picture was featured in the 1991-1992 American Heart Association Maryland Affiliate Annual Report, his parents explained. And when the national organization was looking for a child to represent the 30,000 children born each year with congenital heart defects, they remembered Jesse.

Aunt Susan Thiess was on hand yesterday, recording everything with a video camera so Jesse will have something to watch and remember when he gets older.

"Later in life, when we show him the pictures, he'll realize" what a big deal it was, Mr. Thiess said.

Jesse was born in October 1989, five weeks premature. Soon after his parents brought him home from the hospital, he became yellow with jaundice. When Jesse went back to the hospital at 10 days old, doctors found the hole in his heart.

Jesse's parents hoped that the hole would heal by itself, as Jimmy's had. "I said, 'Nobody is going to cut my baby open' " Mrs. Thiess recalled. "I thought God was going to heal him on his own, like Jimmy."

But the hole, one third the size of Jesse's fist-sized heart, was too large. Doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center patched the hole with a synthetic material during a 10-hour operation the day before Thanksgiving that year, and Jesse was home in eight days. Doctors expect the heart muscle to grow around the patch, and there is every indication that Jesse is a normal, healthy child.

Ever since word got out that the Thiess family was going to meet the president, the household has been in a whirlwind of activity. Reporters and camera crews from local television stations traipsed through the house on Saturday and again on yesterday afternoon after the family returned from the capital.

Despite the activity and excitement around him on Saturday, Jesse, a shy, blond boy, sat on the den floor and played with his blocks. He responded to most reporters' questions with a smile, but enthusiastically practiced his all-important line that would start the run the following day: "Mark, get set, goooooo!"

The family spent the night Saturday in a room at the Watergate Hotel.

The boys were "a little bit wired" that night, Mr. Thiess said, but they slept fine. He was the one who was up all night.

"I didn't sleep," he said. "I kept thinking, 'What am I going to do if he asks me something?'"

"He kept interviewing himself last night," Mrs. Thiess said.

It was blustery and cold as the family waited for Mr. Clinton to arrive. They sat in a police car trying to keep warm until shortly before the motorcade pulled up. Jesse was none too happy to leave the car's friendly confines when the time came. But any fussing ended when the president arrived.

Mr. Clinton emerged from his limousine, shook hands with some of the 50 or so runners waiting to jog, and then walked over to the Thiess family. "How're y'all doing?" he asked. The president waved to Jesse, who buried his face in his mother's shoulder.

Mr. Clinton took Jesse in his arms and held him, talking softly to him; Jesse looked intently into his eyes.

At the end of the run, Jesse greeted Mr. Clinton with a high-five.

Afterward, Jesse's parents were both excited and touched. They saw tears in Mr. Clinton's eyes as an American Heart Association official described Jesse's brush with death and his struggle to survive.

"Who would have thought that three years ago, a heart operation would have led to something like this?" an ebullient Mr. Thiess said after the encounter. "A fantastic ending."

But Jesse left expressions of wonder to the adults. He simply waved bye to his new friend, Bill, as the president's limousine pulled away.

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