Hannah’s Heart Defect

The first anniversary of Hannah’s heart surgery is approaching so I’ve been pushing myself to finish posts that I’ve been working on for months. I’m hoping to have them all done by June 12, to be forever known as Hannah’s Heart Day.


The nurses and doctors knew something was wrong right after Hannah’s birth. It clearly wasn’t serious enough for them to take her from us immediately because they still cleaned her up and let Pete hold her before whisking her off to the nursery. The issue was her low oxygen level – something they couldn’t accurately diagnosis at that hospital. The pediatrician told us it could be a lung or heart issue. That was the only warning we had that our little girl could have a heart defect, and I remember the exact moment when the warning become reality.

Hannah had been taken to the children’s hospital, I sent Pete and my parents home, and I was alone in my hospital room when my cell phone rang. It was the doctor that accompanied Hannah on her ambulance trip, a pretty Indian woman who I thought seemed much too young to be a doctor already. She said “We confirmed your daughter has a heart defect. We will have more information tomorrow. Also, she’s hungry. Do we have your permission to give her formula?” It all felt like a dream.

It was nearly 36 hours before we sat down with the cardiologist to learn more about the defect. According to Boston Children’s Hospital, an AV canal defect occurs in 2 out of 10,000 births (0.02%). However, 50% of babies with Down syndrome are born with a heart defect, about 20% of which have an AV canal defect.

The doctor explained that even though Hannah’s heart defect was considered congestive heart failure, she wasn’t a “blue baby” or at risk of going into sudden heart failure. Her symptoms would worsen over time and we’d see the pediatrician or cardiologist every two weeks, who would help monitor Hannah’s progress. Visiting nurses would come twice a week for weight checks and medication would be needed to delay the inevitable surgery.

These were the main symptoms that Hannah experienced:

Fatigue – As a newborn, Hannah could easily sleep for 5-6 hours between feedings. Once she became more active and hungry during the day, she stopped waking up a night to eat. Unfortunately, Hannah never learned how to soothe herself to sleep because she’d just pass out wherever she was.

Tiring while feeding – This was our main struggle. Hannah often fell asleep mid-feeding because the simple act of taking in calories exhausted her. She eventually quit breastfeeding because it was too much work. During the two weeks before her surgery it became more difficult to get her to finish a bottle.

Poor weight gain – According to the nutritionist, infants gain about 20-30 grams a day but Hannah was averaging 10. She was burning most of her calories on breathing, eating, and growing lengthwise. We started fortifying breast milk with formula once Hannah was more active and gradually increased the amount every month. By the time surgery was scheduled, the milk was so thick from formula that it looked like a milkshake.

Sweating – Memorial Weekend was the start of the sweating, which was the cue to us that she wasn’t doing well. I remember one day she was sleeping in my lap and my pants were soaked through from her sweat.

Other symptoms – Rapid, heavy breathing; rapid heart rate; cool, pale skin

Hannah started the two medications within two weeks of leaving the hospital. The first was fuorosomide, a diuretic, that pulled excess fluid out of Hannah’s body and lungs, which helped her breathe easier. The second one, Captopril, treats high blood pressure and heart failure. For Hannah, it allowed more blood to flow through the aorta which lessened the extra blood flow to the lungs. The dosages were increased every few weeks as she slowly gained weight and needed more assistance to stay comfortable.

The truly amazing part of the whole ordeal is that you never would have guessed, just by looking at her, that Hannah was sick. Nearly every day of those 3 1/2 months she was a happy, curious, funny little lady.

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Six days before surgery
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