Rachael Stephens blows a kiss to her 16-month-old son, Alex, who has recently returned from the hospital following one of a series of operations. A year ago next week, Alex’s life was saved by a quick-thinking police officer after the boy stopped breathing.

A Breath of Life

Alex Stephens rubs the sleep from his eyes and, from beneath a shock of red hair, surveys the visitors who have interrupted his nap. Then the 16-month-old smiles up at his mother.

"He's a pretty happy guy," mom Rachael Stephens said.

And roughly a year after she found her young son cold, blue and not breathing, she's pretty happy with his progress, too, as well as grateful for the quick-thinking police officer who responded to her frantic call for help that day.

Alex has CHARGE syndrome, a genetic abnormality that causes numerous symptoms, including heart defects; eye, ear and nose malformations; swallowing and breathing difficulties; facial palsy; and brain abnormalities that can cause developmental delays.

Inhaled food stopped his breath Nov. 27, 2006, when he was just 41/2 months old, leaving him limp and purple and prompting his mother's panicked 9-1-1 call.

Medford police Officer Tim Garr was the first person to respond, resuscitating Alex before fire and ambulance crews arrived to whisk the baby to the hospital for further treatment.

"When I look back on my career in law enforcement, this is a bright spot," said Garr, who worked for the Jackson County Sheriff's Department for seven years before joining Medford police seven years ago.

"You never know what you will face each time you suit up and head out," he said, noting that he is grateful he had a chance to help.

Garr said he had never had a chance to assist anyone in such extreme need as Alex was that day. However, he does know something about suddenly and seriously ill children. His son, now 12, had to undergo open heart surgery during the holiday season when he was 22 months old.

In the past year, little Alex has undergone five surgeries at Doernbecher Children's Hospital in Portland, Rachael Stephens said. He has had three heart surgeries — one open-heart procedure, the placement of a stent and the implantation of a pacemaker. He also has had a gastric surgery called a Nissin procedure to prevent his stomach contents from leaking into his lungs and causing choking or pneumonia. Just last week he had surgery to close a small opening at the base of his spine and to correct a malformation in his skull that left him with a "soft spot" that hadn't closed.

In all, Alex has undergone seven surgeries and spent nearly 10 months of his life in the hospital.

"Alex always flirts with the nurses," said his big sister Meagan, who just turned 8.

He can roll over now and is close to sitting up by himself. He does physical therapy and works with a feeding specialist so he can one day learn to swallow food and not rely on a feeding tube, Stephens said.

He mutters in a happy baby gibberish and only says "mama" when he's mad, she said. Still, he's hardly ever fussy, handling his serious and lasting health problems with aplomb, although teething was tough, she admitted.

Now Stephens, husband Leon, Meagan and Alex are all looking forward to holidays at home — not the hospital — with extended family in the area.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485, or e-mail

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