It was Christmas 2016 when Alex and Becca surprised their families with the joyful news: Becca was pregnant with their first child, a baby boy named Oliver.
The elated couple started preparing to welcome a new baby. Then everything changed at the couple’s 20-week ultrasound.
“The doctor came in and said that there was something wrong with the baby’s heart,” said Alex. “Those were the hardest words I’ve ever heard.”
Oliver was diagnosed with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome, a serious heart defect in which the left side of the heart is severely underdeveloped. Despite significant advancements over the past decade, the condition is still the No. 1 cause of heart-related death in infants.
Alex and Becca learned that Oliver’s heart would need to be almost entirely reconstructed. Within days of being born, he'd need the first of three major open-heart surgeries.
After receiving the devastating diagnosis, Becca contacted Dr. Bettina Cuneo, a renowned fetal cardiologist and Professor of Pediatrics and Obstetrics at Children’s Hospital Colorado. Dr. Cuneo and her team met with the family and discussed a treatment plan.
“We felt so reassured after meeting with her and knowing that Oliver was going to get the very best care,” said Becca. “She gave us hope.”
That sense of hope was shaken a few weeks later when the family received more bad news: Oliver’s heart rate was very fast -- 260 beats per minute -- due to abnormal rhythms. It was causing heart failure and putting Oliver in grave danger.
“We thought we were going to lose him,” Alex said. “They were preparing us for the worst, but Dr. Cuneo wouldn’t give up.”
It took several attempts and interventions, but Dr. Cuneo was able to stabilize Oliver’s heart rate, and Becca’s pregnancy continued normally. On July 25, 2017, Oliver was born at the Children’s Hospital Colorado Fetal Care Center. At just 2 days old, he underwent his first open heart surgery. Dr. James Jaggers performed the intricate procedure on Oliver’s tiny heart.
“It wasn’t easy to hand our baby over for surgery, not knowing if we’d ever see him again,” Becca said.
Oliver made it through surgery, but over the next several months he struggled through multiple complications, hospitalizations and severe infections. Just before he turned 4 months old, Oliver had to undergo his second open heart surgery – a painful procedure that left him inconsolable for days.
Hope in research
Today, Oliver is a joyful 1 year old who is learning to walk and talk. He has recovered from his initial surgeries but will require a final heart operation within the next two years.
“He wouldn’t be here without Children’s Hospital Colorado,” Alex said. “They care for not just the illness, but for the whole child and their family.”
Alex and Becca decided to harvest Oliver’s stem cells from his umbilical cord at birth in hopes that the promising regenerative medicine research taking place at Children’s Colorado might someday be able to help their son. Most regenerative therapies using a patient’s stem cells are still in the early stages, but the family hopes that new treatments might be ready in time for Oliver’s final heart surgery.
For now, Alex and Becca are looking forward to spending the holiday season at home as a family and feeling very grateful for their son and the doctors who saved his life.
“My family asked what I wanted for Christmas this year, and I told them I don’t want anything,” said Becca. “I have my son, and that’s all I could ever ask for.”