Kansas baby undergoes life-saving heart transplant

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SALINA, Kan. (SJ) -

Erin Hernandez thought she wouldn’t need her cell phone in the five minutes it took to retrieve daughter Aurora from her elementary school Monday afternoon.

But when Erin returned to her car, she discovered a missed call from Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., where her 6-month-old son Peter was staying while waiting for a heart transplant.

Her mind swirling with emotion, Erin called back and heard the news she, her husband Christopher and Peter’s siblings Aurora, 7, and Michael, 4, had been waiting for: a new heart was being offered to Peter and surgery was scheduled for the next morning.

“We raced home, packed in 20 minutes, gassed up the cars and headed out,” Erin said.

Peter Hernandez, who was profiled in a Feb. 17 Salina Journal story, was born Aug. 20 with aortic stenosis, which is a narrowing of the large aortic valve that branches off to the heart. This narrowing reduces or block blood flow and can lead to heart failure if not repaired or replaced.

Peter was taken to Children’s Mercy Hospital two days after his birth and has been there ever since. Although multiple surgeries attempted to repair the valve, a staph infection and aneurysm led surgeons to conclude that Peter’s heart would not survive much longer on its own.

“We knew he wasn’t going to be able to leave the hospital without a new heart,” Christopher said.

Peter was put on a list to receive a transplant, which could take up to a year or more. As it turned out, it only took a little over three months.

On the way to Kansas City, Erin couldn’t help but think of the family of the baby who had to die before its heart and other organs could be taken to help save the lives of other babies.

“There are several reasons that it takes so long for the surgery to happen,” she said. “The grieving family needs time to gather and say goodbye to their child. Also, recipients for all the donated organs have to be located before the process of taking the organs begins. (We’re) so humbled and grateful to the Lord and the family who chose to donate, but also grieving for them.”

Seven hour surgery

The Hernandez family was able to spend time with Peter before the early Tuesday morning surgery, which Erin said lasted about seven hours.

In a blog Erin wrote on the Children’s Organ Transplant Association (COTA) website, at 9:30 a.m. the surgeon made the first incision to Peter’s chest, and he was put on a bypass machine to keep him stable until the new heart arrived a few hours later.

“Babies’ bodies don’t know their own blood type yet, so baby heart transplant recipients are oftentimes able to receive organs from other blood types,” she wrote. “So Peter’s heart is from another blood type. Because of that, they do some blood exchanges during the surgery to condition his body for the new heart. They also are giving him steroids to suppress his immune system. Putting in the new heart will only take about an hour.”

Peter’s new heart arrived at noon Tuesday and was promptly sewn in. Erin and Christopher were able to see a picture of Peter’s old heart, which she said looked “so battered and tired.”

“It was also enlarged to about the size of an adult’s fist, (and) Peter’s heart should be about the size of his own fist,” she said.

Beating on its own

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, Erin wrote: “The heart is in and beating on its own! Right now we will be waiting for the next few hours for the bleeding to stop and for closure of his chest.”

On Wednesday, Erin said Peter’s chest had been closed, and an echocardiogram revealed that his vital signs looked good. There was some bleeding in his lungs during the transplant, but there has not been bleeding since, she wrote on her blog.

“His lungs haven’t been supported very well with Peter’s native, sick heart, therefore they are not in great condition right now,” she wrote. “But the doctors expect them to improve. They are supported now by a really strong, healthy heart. The right side function (of the heart) is somewhat diminished, which is not uncommon in transplant recipients. His new heart went from supporting healthy lungs to supporting lungs that are a little beat up. So it is normal for it to not be completely happy about it.”

Another positive sign is Peter no longer has to wear what is known as a “Berlin Heart,” a ventricular assist device that serves as a bridge to a heart transplant by pumping blood from the heart into a pump on the outside of the body and then back into the bloodstream.

Erin said Peter will have to continue living in Kansas City for at least the next three months so doctors can monitor his condition and be nearby in case any complications arise.

“A chest takes about six weeks to heal from surgery,” Erin said. “The doctors are pleased with how his looks and how he is doing. Our goal is to have him back in Salina this summer.”

Grateful for support

The Hernandez family said they are grateful for the support of friends, family, Salina citizens and surrounding communities. A fund has been set up through COTA to raise $75,000 to help with Peter’s transplant-related expenses. So far, more than $72,000 has been raised towards that goal.

Another goal, Erin said, is to someday meet the family that donated their baby’s heart so Peter could live.

“We don’t know who the donor family is or where they are located,” Erin wrote in her blog. “We have no idea the gender, age or anything about the donor. That is top secret information. If both parties are willing, we will be able to communicate with them in one year.

“I know many of you have been praying with us for the family who would be donating their child’s organs. Please continue to lift us and that family up.”

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