Remembering a son, and giving thanks

Tommy Blackshaw on the afternoon of his second heart transplant.
Tommy Blackshaw on the afternoon of his second heart transplant.handout

NORTH ANDOVER — Her water broke on Thanksgiving morning 18 years ago, and by nightfall, Sandy and Tom Blackshaw were at Holy Family Hospital in Methuen beaming at their new baby boy, celebrating the dawn of parenthood.

Tommy Blackshaw checked in at 8 pounds, 2 ounces, and for his first week of life he hit all the medical mileposts over which all new parents obsess. Wet diapers. Dirty diapers. Regular feedings. Healthy sleep.

On the baby’s eighth day of life, when Tom Blackshaw came home from work, Sandy greeted him with sobering news. “Something’s wrong,’’ she told her husband. The baby was lethargic. She had to wake him to feed him. Presently, the Blackshaws were back at Holy Family, this time in the emergency room.


Tommy Blackshaw had his first heart surgery when he was 11 days old and his second at 22 months, when surgeons at Boston Children’s Hospital replaced a heart valve. His lifelong struggle against heart disease would make him a fixture at Children’s, where medical wizards worked to keep him healthy.

And for a long time, they succeeded. When he was 8, doctors replaced his heart valve again. But Tommy was too busy being a little boy. And was he ever.

“He was running around and almost keeping up with everybody,’’ Sandy recalled. “He did really well. He could do almost everything he wanted to do. He was someone happy to wake up every day and be alive. He would do whatever came his way that day and not complain. He was just a happy kid.’’

“He saw the best in everyone, he really did,’’ said his father, who loved his son so dearly and spent so much time with him that Tommy would sometimes have to remind his dad that he had friends his own age. “He was such a fun person to spend time with,’’ Tom Blackshaw said.


By the time he was 14, Tommy’s heart had had it. “Honey, your heart’s failing,’’ his mother told him. “We’ve got to do this.’’ His first transplant was on Valentine’s Day 2012.

His second came last June, on Father’s Day. “He wasn’t scared,’’ Sandy Blackshaw said. “He was really excited to get this done and over with.’’

They got to Children’s Hospital at 3:30 that afternoon. By 10:30 that night, Tommy was wheeled into surgery and his parents received regular bulletins from the medical staff. Then silence. “It was just catastrophic bleeding,’’ his father said. “He had almost no clotting properties at all.’’

Tommy Blackshaw at his prom.
Tommy Blackshaw at his prom.handout

Tommy Blackshaw died on June 22 at the hospital, where his 16-year-old sister, Katie, hopes to return some day as a cardiac nurse. “I looked up to him,’’ she said. “He was always so optimistic about life.’’

Tom and Sandy Blackshaw know something that only parents who’ve lost a child can know. The shock and disbelief have faded. The sadness has not. It’s crystallized into something almost physical.

But as we sat around their dining room table on Monday, a warm late-autumn sun slanting through the windows, there were more smiles than tears.

They recounted Tommy’s medical travails. But what they cherish is not their son the patient, but their son the brave boy who grew into an optimistic, fun-loving young man. The teenager who, on his last day of life, wore his URI jersey in his hospital bed. He was determined to enroll at the campus in Kingston, R.I., some day.


They remembered Tommy the skier who took risks as they watched vigilantly over his shoulder. Tommy the motor head who lovingly restored his black Mustang GT. Tommy the procrastinator, who put off a critical school essay so he could help a classmate polish hers.

When the extended family gathers on Thursday, they’ll give thanks for all the simple, essential things that Tommy Blackshaw taught them. How he got up every morning thrilled to be alive and determined to savor his life one day at a time.

What a golden gift for his family. What a soaring lesson for the rest of us.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FarragherTom.