Veer’s father Jatin spent many sleepless nights searching the internet for ventricular septal defect (VSD), a condition his son has endured since birth. He was nervous awaiting his son’s upcoming appointment for a heart surgery consultation and wanted to know everything he could about VSD.
Veer was born at a local hospital and diagnosed with VSD at birth. Veer was monitored regularly by a physician, and when he was 18 months old, his parents transitioned his care to CHOC Children’s cardiologist Dr. James Chu to monitor the VSD.
“Dr. Chu kept on an eye on Veer to make sure he was doing well. He got regular echocardiograms, first every two to three months progressing to every six months and then every year since he was getting better,” says Veer’s mom, Sweta.
VSD is a hole between the heart’s lower chambers allowing blood to pass from the left to the right side of the heart. The oxygen rich blood then gets pumped back to the lungs instead of out to the body, causing the heart to work harder. Often, small VSDs can close on their own.
An echocardiogram, also known as a cardiac ultrasound, uses sound waves to create pictures of the heart. It shows the structure of the heart and its parts and how well they’re working.
A few months before Veer’s fourth birthday, Dr. Chu said the hole in his heart was no longer improving and that it might need to be surgically repaired. The hole was very close to the AV nodes (the natural pacemaker of the heart) and the tricuspid valve was regurgitating which can lead to right-sided heart failure.
Dr. Chu referred Veer to CHOC Children’s pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Richard Gates for a consultation. Dr. Gates saw the echocardiogram and knew right away Veer would need surgery to repair the VSD.
“Before we were able to meet with Dr. Gates, we had so many sleepless nights thinking about what could happen if Veer needed heart surgery. But after meeting Dr. Gates, we felt comforted and confident about moving forward with surgery. He explained every step of the surgery to us and answered all of our questions,” says Sweta.
Veer’s surgery would require a biograft, which is like a patch, that will usually cause the valve to fall back into place. If that didn’t happen during the surgery, Veer would need more surgery done to repair the VSD at the time of the operation.
The surgery went well, and Veer only needed the biograft. “Dr. Chu told us recently that the surgery was done so well and precise that you can’t even tell on the echocardiogram where the graft was done,” says Sweta.
“Our experience with CHOC was amazing. All of the doctors, nurses and child life specialists took care of Veer like their own family member,” Sweta says. “The child life specialists were so friendly. Veer loves bubbles and cars, so they brought him bubbles and the Disney Cars movie. He got to hold the iPad and watch the movie before the surgery which made him so happy. After surgery, they even brought a larger bed in the room so that I could sleep next to him.”
Today, Veer is full of energy and thriving.
“When he used to play with his toy cars, he would lie on his side because he didn’t have a lot of energy,” Sweta says. “Now he has so much energy that he doesn’t have to do that, and he’s able to run around with his older siblings.”
By Buffy O’Neil, mom of CHOC Children’s patient T.J.
When my youngest son T.J. was born, we were so excited to complete our family. His nursery was ready to go and we had picked out the outfit he’d wear home from the hospital. I’d even done genetic testing, and everything about T.J. looked fine.
I wanted to deliver my son at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange because I knew if anything happened, which I didn’t expect it to, CHOC Children’s was right next door. I drove all the way to St. Joseph when I was in labor so that we’d be close to CHOC if we needed them.
Even though T.J. was a bigger baby than we anticipated and I had a rough delivery, everything looked fine right after he was born. A minute later he started to turn blue. They thought it was because of the rough delivery. They gave him some oxygen, but he turned blue again. That’s when we knew something was wrong.
My delivery team paged a neonatologist from CHOC who rushed over to evaluate him. Within minutes, there was a neonatologist in our room, and then T.J. was on his way to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at CHOC, and my husband went with him. That neonatologist suspected there was a problem with T.J.’s heart, and brought in two pediatric cardiologists, Dr. Fahrouch Berdjis and Dr. James Chu. Dr Chu performed an echocardiogram, also known as a cardiac ultrasound, and diagnosed T.J. with transposition of the great arteries. They reassured me that I hadn’t done anything wrong during my pregnancy that caused this. TGA is due to abnormal development of the fetal heart, which occurs during the first eight weeks of pregnancy.
The heart has four chambers and four valves. The problem in transposition of the great arteries is that the two main arteries leaving the heart come off the wrong pumping chamber. This makes the blood flow incorrectly and makes the baby sick at birth. In order for babies with TGA to have a chance at survival, they need a diagnosis within hours of birth, and then an immediate procedure called a balloon artrial septostomy. During this procedure, a special catheter with a balloon in the tip is used to create an opening in the wall between the left and right atria, to improve the mixing of oxygen-rich and oxygen-poor blood.
On the first day of T.J.’s life, nothing happened as we had planned, but everything happened as it should. I can’t even imagine what it would’ve been like if something had gone wrong. I thank God every day that T.J. was born at St. Joseph Hospital and CHOC was right next door. The doctors told us that many babies that have to be transferred to a children’s hospital to be evaluated have died in the process. Because T.J. was born at a facility that’s literally connected to CHOC (via an underground tunnel), he was able to be diagnosed and had his procedure done within hours.
The first week of T.J.’s life was really scary. His right lung collapsed and then got a little stronger, only to have his left lung collapse. Babies with TGA need to have their first open heart surgery in the first week of life, and we weren’t sure if he was even going to live long enough to have that surgery. Doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists did everything they could to stabilize him.
Everything was very overwhelming. The baby who we had expected to be perfectly healthy was lying in a hospital crib with a lot of wires and monitors attached to him. He was so close to dying. All we could do was sit, watch and pray he would survive.
Every doctor we met with was so patient and explained everything in a way we could understand. We were overwhelmed and just trying to take it all in.
After a scary six days, T.J. was stable enough to undergo his first open heart surgery called an arterial switch. During that procedure, Dr. Richard Gates pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon and co-medical director of CHOC’s Heart Institute, cut open T.J.’s chest, cut his arteries and switched them so they were in the correct spot, and then stitched them into place.
Five hours after we kissed our son goodbye and saw him being wheeled back into the operating room, Dr. Gates came out to meet us in the waiting room. He said the surgery had been difficult but overall it went well, and now everything was all up to baby T.J.
In the week after T.J.’s open-heart surgery, he wasn’t breathing as well as we hoped he would. His team decided to do a cardiac catheterization procedure to determine why he still had a murmur and issues with his oxygen levels. During that procedure, they placed a wire, mesh device called a stent in a narrowed artery to keep it open and improve blood flow.
After this, T.J.’s oxygen levels improved, but his heart and lungs had been through a lot and needed to grow stronger before we could go home. Our next big hurdle was getting T.J. to eat on his own. Our feeding specialist was surprised at how fast he caught on to sucking and swallowing, but because his body was working so hard to recover from surgery, he was burning more calories than he was taking in. The doctors decided it was best to place a percutaneous endoscopic gastronomy tube (more commonly known as a G-tube or feeding tube) directly into T.J.’s stomach so he wouldn’t have to work so hard to eat, but he’d still get the calories he needed to grow stronger.
Another unexpected hurdle was when T.J. started having withdrawals from the pain medication he had been placed on after surgery. A registered nurse/pain specialist was assigned to us in order to evaluate how best to help T.J. cope. She put him on a 30-day weaning plan and after a few days he started improving, and soon we were on our way home!
We were so happy to finally take our baby home, almost six weeks after he was born. We went home with a lot more than we came with, including a medication schedule with six different drugs outlined by his nurses, plus a breathing machine.
We knew T.J. would need another open-heart surgery before his first birthday. We had periodic appointments with his cardiologist Dr. Chu, and a feeding specialist as well. A few months later, Dr. Chu performed a cardiac ultrasound or echocardiogram to see how T.J.’s heart was working. He told us that even though T.J. had grown a lot and was healthy, it was time for his surgery. His arteries were not growing enough to keep up with him.
T.J.’s second open heart surgery occurred when he was six months old, and he had a third surgery when he was 18 months. Each of those were to expand arteries to allow for better blood flow. As a parent, I always appreciated Dr. Gates’ honesty. He told us that these were intense surgeries, and that T.J. would need blood transfusions during them to compensate for blood loss during surgery.
After the second and third surgery, we spent a week in the cardiovascular intensive care unit (CVICU) at CHOC. We were blown away at how the nursing staff cared for our entire family during that time. We were putting our son in their hands, but they didn’t just take care of him. They took care of all of us. Years later, the nurses that cared for him when he was a baby still want to hear updates about T.J. and how he’s doing in school.
For the first 18 months of T.J.’s life, it felt like we were at CHOC all the time. It was an unexpected start to my son’s life, and at the time, it was devastating. I felt like I was the only mom experiencing this, and if there’s any moms reading this I want you to know that you’re not alone. There are people out there who understand what you’re going through. Ask your child’s care team if they can put you in touch with other families who may be willing to share their stories with you. For my husband and me, being able to meet people with the same conditions, and to share stories with other adults who have been through what you’ve been through was incredibly helpful.
Today, T.J. is a happy eight-year-old. He’s very athletic and loves to play sports, and I’m proud to say he is a straight-A student. When he feels self-conscious about his scars, we remind him how special and strong he is. Even though his life has been filled with several surgeries and countless doctor’s appointments, he has no anxiety about going to the doctor’s office because he’s always treated so well there. When T.J. was a baby we saw Dr. Chu monthly, and now that his heart is doing so well, we only have to go twice per year.
As for my heart, I have a very special place in it for CHOC― especially for Dr. Gates and Dr. Chu. Both of them are in photos in T.J.’s room. We remind them at every appointment that they are the reason T.J. is alive.
After all, Andrew credits CHOC Children’s with saving his daughter’s life, and the annual fundraiser takes place throughout his office – the Disneyland Resort.
Cumulatively, the Disneyland Resort has been CHOC’s largest corporate donor over the past 25 years, and the annual CHOC Walk in the Park is the hospital’s largest fundraiser, raising more than $32 million to date.
“I feel a sense of pride that an organization I’ve been with for 17 years has such a strong relationship with CHOC, which has done so much for my family,” says Andrew, who is part of the Disneyland Resort’s catering and convention services team. “The CHOC Walk is a small way that we give back and recognize the incredible care that we had at CHOC.”
Many Disneyland Resort cast members who have been personally impacted by CHOC participate every year. Last year, the Disney VoluntEARS walk team raised more than $90,000 for the hospital.
The Geis family’s relationship with CHOC began even before baby Sawyer was born. Imaging conducted while she was in utero revealed two possible heart defects, the severity of which wouldn’t be known until she was born.
The family started planning, and immediately after her birth, Sawyer was transferred to CHOC’s neonatal intensive care unit. There, further testing revealed a constricted aorta; an atrial septal defect (ASD), or a hole between the top chambers of her heart; and a ventricular septal defect (VSD), or a hole between the heart’s lower chambers.
Sawyer would need surgery – and she’d need it quickly, specialists told Andrew.
“I don’t think you’re actually ever prepared to hear that when your child is less than 24 hours old,” he says. “It was like a kick to the heart.”
Within days, Sawyer underwent surgery to repair the defects. Dr. Richard Gates, co-medical director of the CHOC Children’s Heart Institute, and Dr. Joanne Starr, medical director of cardiothoracic surgery at CHOC, fixed the constriction in her aorta, partially closed the ASD, and placed a band around Sawyer’s pulmonary artery to equalize pressure in the two sides of her heart and force the blood to flow to the lower half of the body.
While the surgery was a success, recovery in the cardiovascular intensive care unit was tough. There, Sawyer had an irregular heartbeat, which required the activation of an external pacemaker. Then, she also developed a blood clot. That same day, Sawyer experienced a three-minute seizure.
The clot and seizures were successfully mitigated, and a CT scan following the seizure showed no signs of a stroke or blain bleed. But Sawyer remained in the CVICU healing, growing and learning to eat on her own for several weeks.
During her stay, Andrew and his wife, Michelle, took shifts, alternating who stayed with Sawyer and who went home to their 5-year-old daughter, Parker. When Parker came to the hospital to visit, CHOC staff made a point to connect with her and ensure her needs were also met, Andrew recalls.
“My wife and I felt very strongly that it wasn’t only about the care Sawyer received, but that the entire family was taken care of,” he says. “That level of compassion and total family care was evident in all interactions with team members of CHOC.”
And finally, after 32 days, a 1-month old Sawyer headed home to join her family.
During their time at CHOC Children’s Hospital, the Geis family became increasingly aware of the long relationship between the heath system and Disney, from Walt Disney’s early fundraising efforts before the hospital was built to the Disneyland Resort’s $5 million gift toward construction of the new Bill Holmes Tower, which houses the interactive “Turtle Talk with Crush” show donated by Walt Disney Imagineering.
“I certainly enjoy working for Disney and all that it represents, and knowing that Disney is affiliated with CHOC Children’s, which did so much for my family when we were in a medical crisis – I think is a unique blend,” Andrew says.
Just after Sawyer’s first birthday, the family participated in its first CHOC Walk, now a family tradition that will continue at this year’s walk. “Team Sawyer” will strut proudly on Aug. 26, joined by its spunky and sassy, 3-year-old namesake, who knows exactly why they walk.
“Sawyer will point to her scar and she’ll say, ‘Tell me about my scar,’” Andrew says. “We’ll talk about her heart and what was wrong with it and what had to be done with it. ‘Who was with me in the hospital?’ she’ll ask, and we’ll tell her, ‘We were all with you in the hospital.’”
Nico’s birth was full of surprises for his mom Jennifer. The biggest one being that he was a boy, when all along she had been expecting a daughter. That wasn’t the only unexpected realization. He lacked a fully-formed tibia (the bone that connects the knee and ankle), was missing his left thumb, and had several structural heart disease defects, none of which had been diagnosed prenatally.
Unexpected heart defects
Nico was diagnosed with unbalanced AV Canal (AVC), Anomalous Pulmonary Venous Connection (APVC), and Ventricular Septal Defect (VSD) due to the underdevelopment and abnormal formation of his heart and major blood vessels. Jennifer learned early on that her son’s heart conditions were treatable with a series of open heart surgeries and/or cardiac catheterization procedures.
The day after he was born, Nico was transported to CHOC Children’s. He underwent his first heart surgery when he was only three days old, under the care of Dr. Richard Gates, a CHOC Children’s pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon and co-director of the CHOC Children’s Heart Institute. Nico’s second heart surgery happened before his first birthday, and he’ll have a third heart surgery later this year.
“Despite Nico’s significant heart condition, he has responded well to each surgery, becoming stronger right before our eyes,” says Dr. Gates. “I look forward to his final surgery which should allow him to continue to be active and happy.”
Jennifer knew that someday Nico would need to have his leg amputated below the knee, Since Nico’s tibia bone connecting his knee and ankle wasn’t fully formed, it meant his ankle didn’t have the support it needed. Her original plan was to have that surgery performed at another facility closer to their home, when she was told they weren’t comfortable operating on his leg due to his heart conditions. Soon after, she and Nico were at CHOC meeting an orthopaedic specialist to discuss a prosthetic for his leg.
“I didn’t know what we were going to do, but during his prosthetic appointment, we learned CHOC would be comfortable performing his surgery, and could schedule it for just a few weeks later! I was thrilled we could do it earlier because I don’t want him to get to a point later on in life when he remembered or missed when he had more of a leg,” Jennifer recalls.
Shortly before his third birthday, Nico underwent surgery to amputate his leg below the knee under the care of Dr. Francois Lalonde, a CHOC Children’s pediatric orthopaedic surgeon.
After spending just one night in the hospital ―including a checkup with his cardiologist, Dr. Nafiz Kiciman, to make sure his heart looked alright after surgery― Nico was discharged.
“Nico is a brave and courageous young boy with an easy-going personality,” says Dr. Lalonde. “He has demonstrated great resilience and coping skills following surgery and wound care, and is already adapting well following the amputation of his left ankle.”
His doctors told his mom he should take it easy for a few days, but as soon as his cast was removed, he was quickly back to his old habits of climbing on furniture and jumping on pillows.
“I never want my son to have the mentality that he is limited,” Jennifer says. “Kids can sense if their parent is worried or scared, and I didn’t want him to feel like that. He’s too young to feel anxious on his own, so I made sure I didn’t bubble wrap him and let him play like his normal self.”
The importance of pediatric specialists for wound care therapy
The week after surgery, Nico and his mom started coming back to CHOC a few times per week for wound care, where specially-trained pediatric physical therapists would clean and rebandage his leg. In between those appointments, Jennifer cared for the wound at home.
“At his first appointment, he saw a new person walking into the room with all these supplies he had never seen before, and it was a lot for him to take in. He covered his eyes and wiggled around during the appointment,” Jennifer recalls.
To make Nico feel at ease, his physical therapist Sandy started letting him help her care for his wound.
“I wanted to be honest with him about what they’re going to do at this appointment, but frame it in a positive way so he knows it’s for his own good and he doesn’t have to be scared. It’s important to explain things in a way that he will understand,” Sandy says. “If you’re honest with the child, they’ll start to trust you. If you say, “this won’t hurt” and it hurts, then you’ve lost their trust.”
Once Nico was involved, he immediately understood that he didn’t have to be scared of wound care, and that it could even be fun.
Now, when Sandy finishes one step, he grabs the next supply that she’ll need. He almost sees it as a game. “Ok Nico, we’re done with this part. What part is next?” Sandy says to him.
These days, before each appointment, when Jennifer asks Nico if he wants to go see Sandy, he squeals and claps with delight.
“I tell him, “Let’s go see Sandy! She’s going to clean your owie and make it feel better.” My positive mentality was contagious for him. I was excited, so he was excited,” Jennifer says. “If the kid sees the parents squeamish during wound care or sees a worried expression on their face, then the kid will be apprehensive. Whenever we come to wound care appointments I make sure I speak to him in a very upbeat, positive way so he feels like physical therapy is fun and not something to be scared of, which helps him to relax. Positive energy is contagious.”
Continuity of care has also helped Nico feel more comfortable.
“It has helped him to have the same one or two physical therapists each time, so it’s a familiar face.”
Once Nico’s leg was fully healed from surgery, he resumed physical therapy, was fitted for a prosthetic, and started walking. In between all of that, he continues to love anything Star Wars, playing Ninja Turtles, coloring and attending pre-Kindergarten classes.
When Noah was born last May, his parents Lauren and John were expecting a healthy baby boy. They were shocked to learn that prenatal ultrasounds had missed his pulmonary atresia with intact ventricular septum (PA-IVS), a condition where the right side of the heart is underdeveloped, and there is no connection from the heart to the lung, compromising blood flow to the lungs and other parts of the body.
Noah’s pulmonary and tricuspid hypoplasia means that he was born with birth defects of the pulmonary and tricuspid valves, which control blood flow to the right side of the heart and eventually to the lungs. He was also diagnosed with a right coronary artery fistula, an abnormal connection between the coronary artery carrying oxygen-rich blood to the heart.
“When I was pregnant, I did everything I was supposed to do to grow a healthy baby. I gave up caffeine, ate well, and took the stairs every day to the ninth floor until I was 33 weeks pregnant,” says Noah’s mom Lauren, who is an occupational therapist at CHOC Children’s.
The evening Noah was born, he had low oxygen and platelet levels and was brought to the neonatal intensive care unit within the hospital where he was born. Dr. James Chu, a CHOC Children’s pediatric cardiologist who was making rounds that evening, suspected Noah had a heart defect and ordered a cardiac ultrasound, or echocardiogram, a non-invasive procedure used to assess the heart’s structure and function.
Dr. Chu returned to Lauren’s room as soon as he had a better idea of Noah’s diagnoses, even though it was 3:00 a.m. He knew Noah’s parents wanted to know what was wrong as soon as possible.
“He drew us diagrams and gently explained Noah’s exact heart defects, their severity, and detailed the surgeries he would have to endure,” Lauren recalls.
Dr. Chu told Lauren and John their son needed a higher level of care.
“He gave us a few options of where we could transfer Noah, and when I told him I really wanted to go to CHOC, he reaffirmed my choice,” Lauren recalls. “Once we arrived at CHOC, another cardiologist, Dr. Ahmad Ellini, confirmed the diagnoses, explained everything again, and answered all of our questions.
“We didn’t have a lot of time to think about a game plan immediately after he was born,” Lauren says of Noah’s surprise heart conditions. “But I knew that CHOC was the best place for him to be.”
Surgery for PA-IVS
Noah spent a week in CHOC’s NICU before undergoing his first in a series of three heart surgeries. That first week was an emotional rollercoaster, Lauren recalls. Noah’s team of neonatologists, Dr. Amir Ashrafi, Dr. John Cleary and Dr. John Tran, helped his parents remain calm.
“The team of neonatologists were great. They answered all my questions, spent lots of time with us, and were super available― even if I had a question at 2:00 a.m. Everyone on his care team was very collaborative,” Lauren recalls, adding that she found the attention to detail and calm nature of Dr. Richard Gates, director of cardiothoracic surgery and surgeon-in-chief at CHOC, very comforting. “Dr. Gates knows his patients through and through. Even though I have a medical background, I’m still a parent. He describes things in a way my husband and I understand, especially when we’re sleep deprived and scared.”
Babies with PA-IVS typically undergo three procedures:
Blalock-Taussig (BT) shunt: a surgeon inserts an artificial tube to aid blood flow to the lungs. This procedure is usually done in the first week of life.
Glenn procedure: Usually done between 4–6 months of age, this operation allows blood returning from the upper part of the body to flow directly to the lungs without passing through the heart. Now the left ventricle only has to do one job, pumping blood to the body.
Fontan procedure: Typically occurring between 2 and 4 years of age, this surgery connects the pulmonary artery and the inferior vena cava (vessel returning oxygen-poor blood from the lower part of the body to the heart), allowing the blood coming back from the lower body to go to the lungs. Once this procedure is complete, oxygen-rich and oxygen-poor blood no longer mix in the heart. The surgeon may leave a small connection between the oxygen rich and oxygen poor chambers (a fenestration).
Lauren describes Noah’s surgeries to her family as a “miracle bandage” since they will not make PA-IVS go away. Noah may need a heart transplant someday.
“When Noah was born his heart was the size of a walnut. Each of these surgeries are temporary, and it’s Noah’s job to keep growing, and eventually, to outgrow each of these repairs and need the next one,” she explains. “Unfortunately, these surgeries cannot make his heart “normal” and he’ll always have serious heart disease, but we’re so grateful we have these operations to give him the best chance possible.”
After his first surgery, Noah spent five weeks in the cardiovascular intensive care unit (CVICU) at CHOC. For the first 48 hours of his recovery, he required extracorporeal life support (ECLS) (also known as extracorporeal membrane oxygenation or ECMO), a special procedure that takes over the heart’s pumping function and the lungs’ oxygen exchange until a patient can recover from injury or illness.
“I knew there was a possibility he’d need to be on ECMO after surgery, but it wasn’t something I allowed myself to think about,” Lauren says. “It was hard to see him hooked up to so many machines and be so fragile. Dr. Joanne Starr did an extraordinary job managing Noah’s care while he was on ECMO and she also cared for us as his parents too. She checked on Noah at all times of the day and night, and even ordered me to go take a walk in the butterfly garden to get a break from being at his bedside 24/7.”
Dr. Starr, director of ECMO and medical director of cardiothoracic surgery at CHOC, has long been committed to caring for a patient’s entire family.
“In caring for children and teens, it’s vital that we as physicians remember we are not only taking care of the patient, but the parents as well. Parental stress and anxiety may have an effect on the patient and the healing process. If parents aren’t practicing self-care, they might not have a clear enough mind to be able to understand their child’s condition and make decisions on their behalf,” explains Dr. Starr. “Having a family’s full support is an important part of the healing process, and something that goes a long way in ensuring a positive long-term outcome for my patients.”
After five weeks in the CVICU, Noah’s parents were thrilled to be able to bring their baby home for the very first time. But a mere 30 hours later, they were readmitted to CHOC as Noah fought a central line infection.
Things calmed down a few weeks later. He went home, continued growing, and started hitting developmental milestones and developing a big personality. During the next few months, the family was still coming to CHOC as frequently as a few times per week for blood and platelet transfusions. Ever since Noah had a low platelet count at birth, his parents knew that he would need transfusions― they just didn’t know how many. That turned out to be as many as three transfusions per week.
Lauren and her dad had a history of donating blood. For instance, if they were at a hospital visiting a family member, they would always go find the blood donor center and give “because it was easy and it was just the right thing to do,” she says.
“I always knew that donating blood and platelets was important, but having a baby who needed blood and platelets changed my respect for what a gift it really is,” Lauren says. “When my baby needed to go on oxygen, and then they gave him a red blood cell transfusion and all of a sudden, he doesn’t need supplemental oxygen anymore, it’s a game changer. To literally watch a kid who couldn’t oxygenate well on his own, suddenly not need help breathing because of a blood transfusion, is amazing.”
Over the past several months, Noah has been able to meet several of the donors who have given him much-needed blood and platelets.
“It is so humbling to meet his donors. Whenever we come to the Orange campus for appointments, we visit the blood donor center and have gotten to meet and thank some of his donors,” Lauren says. “The people who give regularly are my heroes. Being helpless and not being able to cure your child is heartbreaking. We rely on these strangers and their generosity. They don’t know us but they help us.”
The need for regular donors ―platelets especially― is so great because the shelf life on blood products is not long. Red blood cells have shelf life of 42 days, but platelets only have a shelf life of 5 days, half of which is taken up by necessary safety testing before a patient can receive the donation. That means there is a window of about 48 hours where patients can receive donor platelets before they expire.
Direct donations, when blood and platelet donations are earmarked for specific patients, are an important way to safeguard patients who need ongoing transfusions, as they help minimize the number of different types of blood products they are exposed to during treatment. This will also help to improve Noah’s chances of being matched for a heart if he needs one in the future. Lauren outlined the ways donors helped her son in handwritten thank you notes she asked the Blood & Donor Services staff to distribute to his directed donors.
When Noah was about five months old, he underwent a cardiac catheterization procedure to determine if his heart was ready for the next surgery. This was standard protocol before part two in his series of surgeries, the Glenn procedure.
“It never crossed my mind that more bad news was coming because he looked ok. We thought he was doing fine,” Lauren says.
During Noah’s cardiac catheterization, his team noticed that the fistula in his heart had grown significantly in size. Noah’s “lucky fin” (as Lauren refers to his right ventricle) grew, which wasn’t good news for the left, healthy side of his heart. The weaker side of his heart was stealing space, blood and other resources from his stronger side. The discovery prompted the question, “Do we rush him into the Glenn procedure or go straight to a heart transplant?” ― a conversation his parents were not prepared for at the time.
“I didn’t even know what to hope for. Do we hope for the Glenn, or do we hope we find a new heart and a transplant goes well?” Lauren recalls. “His team told us to hope that his heart lasts as long as possible.”
His cardiology and hematology teams at CHOC rushed to help the family coordinate second opinions at other institutions within just a few days. They also helped the family coordinate a transplant evaluation, a three-part process to determine if the patient is medically qualified and the family emotionally prepared to care for a transplant patient.
“With invaluable input from a Southern California pediatric transplant team, and after multiple phone and in-person conferences amongst all his caregivers and his family, it was decided that Noah’s best chance at a positive outcome would be to have his Glenn procedure at CHOC,” recalls Dr. Ellini. “I have never worked at an institution that can so quickly mobilize to make sure that patients obtain the best care possible. It is even more amazing that our team at CHOC has the ability to use its regional resources to optimize the care of our complex patients like Noah.”
The consensus was clear―Noah needed a second surgery, and he needed it to go perfectly, or else he would need a heart transplant.
“That week rushing to get second opinions was a whirlwind,” Lauren recalls. “My husband and I were basically looking for any reason to stay at CHOC for surgery. Not only did we have complete confidence in Dr. Gates, but Noah’s entire care team has always treated him like he was their own child. There were so many people at CHOC totally invested in his care― everyone from cardiology, hematology, blood and donor services, the CVICU, everyone.”
After surgery, which went well, Noah stayed in the CVICU for 10 days before going home.
“I didn’t realize how hard he was working to just survive until after his second surgery,” Lauren says. “I couldn’t see how hard his heart was working to do anything because he was still happy, growing and meeting developmental milestones. But now I can just tell he feels so much better. He has more energy to play and skills are coming to him more easily now. It’s really amazing to see.”
The reason why Noah required platelet transfusions for the first few months of life remains a mystery. Thankfully, he hasn’t required platelets since his second surgery, when he was almost six months old, and his care team remains hopeful this is something he’ll grow out of.
The reason his platelets continue to be low remains a mystery, but Noah is slowly improving under the close watch of his hematology team, including Dr. Diane Nugent, Dr. David Buchbinder, Dr. Arash Mahajerin, Dr. Amit Soni, Dr. Victor Wang and Dr. Geetha Puthenveetil. Noah has an affinity towards Dr. Puthenveetil, whose last name means ‘Newhouse’ (Noah’s last name) in her home language. His family remains hopeful Noah won’t need any more transfusions, and his directed donors can now donate to help other CHOC patients in need.
Noah’s third open heart surgery, the Fontan procedure, will happen in a couple years.
Even though Lauren has been a valued CHOC employee for over four years, she knows the high level of care her son has received isn’t due to special treatment.
“We are treated like family here not because I work here, but because that is how CHOC treats all patients.”
Today, one-year-old Noah is “defying all odds in terms of cardiac babies,” his mom says. He is very curious, always alert, and loves flirting with his favorite nurses.