CHOC Children’s Heart Institute Helps Teen Runner Overcome Hurdles

Born with transposition of the great arteries (TGA), now 17-year-old Ryan Smith was rushed to CHOC Children’s Hospital, where he underwent an emergency procedure to regulate the flow of oxygen through his body until open-heart surgery could be performed a week later, and he spent two months at CHOC. TGA is a condition in which the large vessels that carry blood from the heart to the lungs, and to the body, are improperly connected.


Ryan’s condition was severe, and his parents were advised that surgery would be complicated and long — roughly seven hours. During the operation, Dr. Richard Gates, cardiothoracic surgeon and co-medical director of CHOC Children’s Heart Institute, disconnected Ryan’s aorta and pulmonary artery before switching them back to their normal positions. The aorta was stitched to the left ventricle, and the pulmonary artery to the right ventricle. The coronary arteries were freed and connected back to the aorta. Ryan’s chest was left open for a few days while he healed.

Throughout his recovery, Ryan’s family remained by his side. They watched as he continued to fight, including learning how to breathe on his own and eat with the help of numerous CHOC specialists. The Smiths were overjoyed when they were finally able to take their newborn home.

Ryan remained under the care of the CHOC Children’s Heart Institute. He and his parents consider his CHOC team part of their extended family.

His mom Cathy says, “The care Ryan has received by the team at CHOC has been extraordinary. They have taken every step to make sure he’s been given the best care clinically, as well as making him feel a part of a great organizational family.”

Children born with TGA require periodic visits with their cardiologists, who check for heart-related problems, including fast, slow or irregular heart rhythms, leaky heart valves, narrowing of one or both of the great arteries at the switch connection site(s) and narrowing of the coronary arteries at their switch connection site.

Shortly after his first birthday, Ryan had his second open-heart surgery; this time to extend and strengthen his pulmonary artery. Additionally, he has undergone a few interventional procedures in CHOC’s cardiac catheterization lab. Most recently, he became part of a small number of patients – second at CHOC – to receive the world’s smallest pacemaker, the Micra® Transcatheter Pacing System (TPS), to help treat his irregular heart rhythm.


About the size of a vitamin, the Micra TPS provides the most advanced pacing technology at one-tenth the size of a traditional pacemaker. And, unlike traditional pacemakers, it does not require cardiac leads or a surgical “pocket” under the skin to deliver the pacing therapy. The device is small enough to be delivered through a catheter and implanted directly into the heart. This offers patients a safe alternative to conventional pacemakers without the complications associated with leads – all while being cosmetically invisible.

For Ryan, a high school athlete, and his parents, the Micra TPS gave them all peace of mind and comfort in knowing Ryan is receiving the necessary therapy while still pursuing his passion:  running. He competes on his school’s cross country and track teams. When he’s not running, he enjoys watching races.

In addition to sports, Ryan excels academically and enjoys an active social life. His classmates consider him a leader and positive role model.


“The thing that makes me most proud of my son is that he lives his life like any other teenager. Nothing is holding him back. He is a testament that no matter what hurdles life may put in front of you, anyone can achieve anything they put their mind and heart into,” shares Ryan’s dad Jim.

Ryan encourages other CHOC patients to pursue their dreams. “You should live your life how you want, as long as you stay within the parameters of your condition,” he explains. “And trust the people at CHOC because they know what they’re doing.”

After high school, Ryan plans on attending college, and, of course, continuing to run.

Learn more about the Heart Institute at CHOC Children's

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Tetralogy of Fallot Patient and his Family Give Back

What was supposed to be a routine visit with their pediatrician on a seemingly typical Friday morning changed Stephanie Harding and her son Trent’s life forever when their day ended with a diagnosis of Tetralogy of Fallot.

As the pediatrician wrapped up his checkup that morning, he noticed 5-week old Trent’s forehead appeared somewhat purple. He tested his oxygen saturation to find the baby’s oxygen level was low and would need to be seen by a cardiologist immediately for further examination.

A few hours later, the cardiologist determined that Trent had Tetralogy of Fallot, a heart condition made up of four related congenital defects that occur due to abnormal development of the fetal heart. Those three words were as foreign and shocking to Stephanie as the turn of events that day.

“I remember thinking we had only packed enough food and supplies for the baby for a trip to the pediatrician and back. Here we were now, at a hospital, hearing the cardiologist explain what his condition involved and everything else went blank. All I could hear is that Trent had four heart defects that needed to be repaired immediately,” Stephanie says. “We asked for prayer right away; we were in disbelief.”

A few days later, Trent had open heart surgery at Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital to repair the four heart defects.

Trent recovering after his first surgery, just days after being diagnosed with Tetralogy of Fallot.

“He’s our miracle baby,” Stephanie says. “It’s a miracle that we caught his condition in time. There had been no signs or symptoms before that appointment with his pediatrician.”

In 2017, Trent, then 6 years old, underwent a second surgery, as is typical for a child with Tetralogy of Fallot, to replace the pulmonary valve with Dr. Richard Gates, a pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon and co-medical director of the CHOC Children’s Heart Institute. Stephanie and her husband, Tim, remember having to explain as best they could to their little boy what was about to happen to him once again.

“Trent is quiet and goes with the flow, yet I didn’t know how he would take it. He was so brave through it all,” Stephanie says. “I still remember as he was being wheeled into the operating room and I finally had to let go of his hand so he could go in; he looked up from the gurney and looked at me, with the anesthesia just starting to kick in, and I thought he was surely going to start crying or screaming. Instead, he just gave me this confident look like, ‘I’ve got this Mom, it’s going to be OK,’” an emotional Stephanie recalls.

The surgery was successful, and the Hardings couldn’t be more thankful with the remarkable care and compassion Trent received from CHOC staff, many of whom they keep in touch with today.

Stephanie and Trent occasionally stop by the cardiovascular intensive care unit (CVICU) at CHOC to say hello to the nurses and doctors who took care of them, and drop off gifts for other families going through what they’ve experienced. Stephanie had provided goodies to the hospital, including the CVICU, long before her son was treated at CHOC. Now, giving back to the CVICU means more than ever.

“It feels great to let another parent know they’re not alone, and that there are resources and groups out there that will support them,” Stephanie says.

Trent, now 7, puts it simply. It makes him so happy, he says, to be able to give back to other kids like him.


The Harding family’s passion to help others doesn’t stop at CHOC. They are very active locally, raising awareness and funds for the congenital heart defect (CHD) community, through groups like Hopeful Hearts Foundation, an organization for families with children affected by CHD.

On Feb.  23, the Hardings are hosting a fundraiser at GritCycle, an indoor cycling gym, with the proceeds benefitting CHOC. Participants can buy a ticket to cycle at the Monarch Beach location.

Trent will need another surgery to replace his pulmonary valve in about five years. For now, he is an active first-grader who enjoys math and jiu-jitsu. He also loves hanging out with his family, including his brothers, Stephan and Dylan, who are very supportive of their ‘miracle baby.’

Learn more about the Heart Institute at CHOC Children's

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Catching a Heart Defect in Utero: Marco’s Story

Meagan and Dante Cipulli quickly settled on a name when they discovered their third baby would be a boy: Marco, which means God of War.

That name would become especially fitting a few weeks later. When Meagan was about six months pregnant, the couple learned their baby had a congenital heart defect called Tetralogy of Fallot and would need open-heart surgery soon after birth.

“Knowing my unborn baby would need open-heart surgery after birth was the scariest experience of my life,” Meagan says. “After receiving his diagnosis, we realized we couldn’t have picked a better name for our little heart warrior.”

Finding heart defects before birth

When a second ultrasound by a perinatologist confirmed that baby Marco’s aorta was enlarged, Meagan was referred to CHOC Children’s pediatric cardiologist Dr. Nita Doshi.


Dr. Doshi performed a fetal echocardiogram, which uses sound waves to create a picture of an unborn baby’s heart.

The evaluation confirmed that Marco had Tetralogy of Fallot, a heart condition comprised of four related defects that cause inadequate amounts of blood to reach the lungs for oxygen, then sending oxygen-deficient blood throughout the body.

“I was in complete shock,” Meagan says. “As a nurse, I knew exactly what Tetralogy of Fallot was and that he would need open-heart surgery.”

Planning began immediately. With the help of Dr. Doshi, the Cipullis began researching hospitals, cardiologists and surgeons who could care for Marco when the time came.

CHOC emerged as the clear choice, and the Cipullis opted for Dr. Doshi to continue as Marco’s cardiologist and Dr. Richard Gates, director of cardiothoracic surgery as well as CHOC’s surgeon-in-chief, to perform the corrective surgery.

Organizing pre-, post-birth care

Meagan moved her obstetric care to a physician aligned with St. Joseph Hospital so that when Marco was born, he could be immediately transferred next door to CHOC’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

During a perinatal conference, the Cipullis met with the obstetrical team at St. Joseph and CHOC’s neonatal team to discuss Marco’s birth and care.

“That conference allowed me to have all my questions answered. It gave me peace of mind that all those related to our care were on the same page,” Meagan said. “I knew that I had made the right choice after meeting with the care team.”

The remaining weeks of Meagan’s pregnancy were an emotional roller coaster. The couple prepared their older sons as best they could for what was to come with their younger brother.

Not understanding the full extent of their baby’s medical needs, the Cipullis’ were terrified. However, they felt at ease knowing a plan was in place.

“Each day of my pregnancy after diagnosis was filled with worry and fear. But they were also filled with gratitude and hope knowing we were fortunate enough to have Marco’s diagnosis in utero and were able to plan for his care after birth,” Meagan says.

The Cipullis didn’t have to wait long for Marco. On May 16, 2017, Marco was born five weeks ahead of schedule. After a brief rest on his mother’s chest, Marco was moved to CHOC’s NICU, where he stayed for the next five days before going home.

Surgery day

Marco was back at CHOC about three months later for surgery with Dr. Gates to repair his heart defects.


“At first it all seemed so surreal and somehow I was able to keep it all together until the moment they wheeled Marco into the operating room,” Meagan says. “While he was lying in the crib, he looked over his shoulder and gave me and his dad this smile and look like, ‘I got this, guys, don’t worry.’ I don’t think I have ever cried harder in my life.”

The surgery went well, and Marco spent five days recovering in CHOC’s cardiovascular intensive care unit.

Today, Marco is a happy and healthy 9-month-old who loves to smile and laugh. He sees Dr. Doshi every four months for follow-up appointments, but otherwise requires no additional medication or therapy.


Many babies with Tetralogy of Fallot will require additional surgeries as they age. The Cipullis however are hopeful that Marco’s early interventional measures will last for many years.

Feeling positive

Meantime, the Cipullis are enjoying every minute with their three boys. They are grateful for the care they received at CHOC after catching Marco’s condition early.


Meagan recommends that other families who find themselves in similar situations be vocal about their fears, but also stay positive about their baby’s future.

“My husband and I each night would talk about what we were feeling that day,” she recalls. “At first, it was more about our fears and worries, but eventually each day we would talk more about our excitement and joy to meet our little warrior.”

Learn more about the Heart Institute at CHOC Children's

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Heart Month: Ryden’s Story

At 27 weeks pregnant, Kayleen Enoka discovered her baby boy, Ryden, had hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS), a birth defect where the left side of the heart does not form correctly and affects normal blood flow through the heart. As a young, first-time mom, she was overwhelmed by the news.

“I felt incredibly helpless. I felt that I couldn’t do anything to help my baby and I wondered what would happen to him. I also felt that I must have done something wrong during the pregnancy to cause his heart defect. I was reassured by the perinatologist and the cardiologist that his defect wasn’t because of something I had done wrong. My mother sat with me through the diagnosis and held my hand and hugged me as I cried,” Kayleen vividly remembers.

After Ryden was born, he was immediately transferred to CHOC Children’s Hospital to be cared for by our CHOC Heart Institute. Kayleen was a partner in her son’s care from the beginning. He had to undergo a series of three surgeries, performed by Dr. Richard Gates, pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon at CHOC, with the first one, the Norwood Procedure, at just five days old. During the surgery, Dr. Gates made Ryden’s right ventricle the main pumping chamber for blood flow to his body.  A shunt was also placed as a pathway for blood to flow into his lungs to receive oxygen.

heart month
Ryden was transferred to CHOC shortly after he was born for the first of three heart surgeries.

“My family and I all sat together waiting for news during the surgery. It was hard, but having so much support helped a lot. I remember when we walked into the room and everyone seemed to be moving so fast. When I asked how he was doing, I was told he was tenuous. That word has resonated with me over the years because I remember feeling that he wouldn’t survive the night. The doctors showed me where the bypass machine was and told me that it was there in case he needed it; again, I was frightened for my baby wondering if he would be strong enough to get through this. I believed in my heart that he was a fighter, but watching all the activity and how small he looked in his hospital bed, made it much harder to believe,” Kayleen says.

Ryden’s second surgery, the Glenn Shunt Procedure, performed when he was 6 months old, was just as scary because Ryden’s health was fragile, Kayleen recalls. The procedure created a direct connection between the pulmonary artery and the vessel returning oxygen-poor blood from the upper part of the body to the heart. After the surgery, Ryden had numerous complications and was hospitalized for 34 days.

heart month
Ryden at about 6 months of age following his second heart surgery, the Glenn Shunt Procedure.

By the time of Ryden’s third surgery, the Fontan when he was 4 years old, Kayleen was ready but apprehensive. “Since Ryden was a little older, I could be honest with him. I told him what was going to happen, and even though he was scared, he was aware and was still able to smile,” Kayleen says.

Dr. Gates connected Ryden’s pulmonary artery and the vessel returning oxygen-poor blood from the lower part of the body to the heart, which allowed the rest of the blood coming back from the body to go to the lungs.  Ryden spent ten days in the hospital.

heart month
After Ryden’s third heart surgery, his nurses gave him this heart pillow, signed by his care team.

Throughout the years, Ryden has experienced arrhythmias, is susceptible to colds, takes multiple medications, and was recently diagnosed with asthma. Kayleen has developed a close relationship with the CHOC Heart Institute team.

“I have always felt like I am a part of the team. In the beginning, I could never have too many questions; the doctors and nurses always took the time to make sure I understood what was happening. Now, when Ryden needs to be hospitalized, the care team always listens to my input. We work together because they understand that I know my son best,” she says.

Among the many experts involved in Ryden’s care, the Enokas have a special relationship with Dr. Anthony Chang, pediatric cardiologist at CHOC.

heart month
Ryden and his cardiologist, Dr. Anthony Chang.

“Dr. Chang has been amazing. I wouldn’t have chosen another cardiologist because he takes the time to care for his patients. Ryden really admires him and often says when he grows up he wants to work on hearts like him,” Kayleen says.

“Ever since I took care of a baby with HLHS in 1983, my passion to help children with congenital heart disease has never subsided. HLHS is a heart defect that requires the supreme dedication of both doctors and nurses in cardiology and cardiac surgery as well as intensive care. It is, however, parents like Kayleen who continue to inspire all of us to help these children, and humbles us in all that they do when these children are not in the hospital or clinic,” Dr. Chang says.

Kayleen’s appreciation for CHOC and its mission inspired her to become an employee. She works as a department assistant in the clinical education and professional development department. She also volunteers her time as a member of the Family Advisory Council, an important group of patients’ family members who provide input on decisions, initiatives and discussions at CHOC. In addition, Kayleen participates in the CHOC Walk every year with “Team Ryden,” including friends, family and cardiovascular intensive care unit (CVICU) nurses.

heart month
Ryden inspires a group of family and friends to participate in CHOC Walk every year in his honor.

Today, Ryden is a happy, fun-loving 7-year-old, who enjoys swimming and playing baseball. Throughout his journey, one thing that has remained unwavering, is Kayleen and Ryden’s close relationship. When Ryden has questions about his heart, Kayleen is always happy to talk openly and lovingly with her son, and reminds him that he has a “special heart.” His middle name — Pu’uwaikila — means “heart of steel,” and Kayleen’s little fighter is surely living up to the name.

heart month
Kayleen Enoka and her son Ryden.

As American Heart Month comes to a close, Kayleen offers parents of heart patients the following tried and true tips that have helped her along the way:

1. Trust your child to know his limits. I’ve always let Ryden push himself, while still keeping a close eye on him of course.

  1. When your child is developmetally ready, be open and honest about his condition. You might be worried you’ll scare him/her, but I’ve always felt that Ryden has the right to know what’s happening to him.
  2. Children with congenital heart diseases may have self-esteem issues (i.e. scars, lack of ability to keep up with other children.) Remember to let your child know that he/she is special and what makes them different is also what makes them amazing. I always tell Ryden that his scar on his chest is what shows his strength. And, that chicks dig scars – it’s an inside joke (he’s never allowed to date).

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CHOC Heart Surgery Patient Joins Security Team

As the only hospital in Orange County to perform open heart surgery on babies and children, CHOC Children’s and its Heart Institute team form special bonds with the patients entrusted to their care.

Many CHOC patients come back to visit and say thank you, some send holiday cards and share school photos so their care teams can see them grow up. A few even return to CHOC as employees, eager to be part of the organization that saved their lives.

Daniel Davis was just 13 years old when Dr. Richard Gates, surgeon-in-chief at CHOC and co-medical director of the Heart Institute, performed surgery on his heart. Eight years later Daniel returned to CHOC as a security officer, helping establish a calm and safe environment at the hospital that cared for him as a teen. He has biannual checkups with Dr. Anthony Chang, pediatric cardiologist at CHOC.

Daniel was born with a subaortic membrane, meaning that his heart had tissue growth below the aortic valve. This caused partial blood flow blockage from the left ventricle, which pumps blood to the rest of the body. This put stress on Daniel’s heart, and if left untreated, could have caused heart failure.  He had already gone through his first open- heart surgery at just three days old.

“I grew up in Orange County and wanted to return to CHOC for work because it’s so close to my heart,” he says. “Growing up I wanted to pursue a career in the military, so a security position was a first step, but now I’m pursuing my EMT certification and eventually a career in nursing.”

Daniel loves working in The Julia and George Argyros Emergency Department and observing the environment.

“I’m constantly impressed by the speed and efficiency of the emergency department staff, how they work at such a high level at such a great speed,” he says. “The emergency department is filled with the unexpected and it keeps you on your toes. Since the ED is so fast-paced, you have to be ready for anything.”

Part of Daniel’s job involves escorting patients and families on campus, as well as to and from the Orange County Ronald McDonald House. On more than one occasion, he’s been able to calm a flustered parent by sharing his story. Seeing an example of the great care CHOC provides is comforting to parents in what can be an otherwise stressful time, he has learned.

When not protecting the hallways of CHOC, he participates in Spartan races, an ultra-competitive obstacle course.

choc heart surgery
When not working at CHOC, Daniel competes in Spartan Races, an ultra-competitive obstacle course. He’s never let his heart condition or past surgeries keep him from completing his goals.

“I never used my heart condition as an excuse to get out of things like physical education class growing up,” he says. “I love being active whenever possible, and encouraging my friends and colleagues in their physical fitness goals as well.”

His commitment to fitness goals does not go unnoticed by his security teammates.

“The obstacle courses Daniel competes in require your body to be pushed to a whole new level,” says Steven Barreda, security services supervisor at CHOC. “Daniel and I work evenings, and on more than one occasion, we’ve worked overtime until 2:00 a.m. and even after a 12 -hour shift, he goes to the gym to train for his next race.”

For Daniel’s surgeons, seeing a former patient grow up to live a normal, healthy life is a joy. Being able to call him a colleague is even better.

“Daniel is fortunate to have a surgically curable condition that when treated properly and timely should allow him a completely healthy and long life, and it’s great that he leads such an athletic lifestyle,” Dr. Gates says. “We have a few patients and parents of patients who work at CHOC. It’s always great and inspiring to hear stories of how they are doing and getting along.”

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