Zhavia was only a few months old, living in her home country of Barbados, when she was diagnosed with Tetralogy of Fallot — a rare congenital heart condition caused by a combination of four heart defects that are present at birth. This condition causes obstruction of blood flow to the lungs causing oxygen-poor blood to flow out of the heart to the rest of the body. Babies can have a bluish tint to lips or skin or can have shallow breathing – depending on the severity of the symptoms. Their symptoms will get worse over time if the heart defect is not corrected.
Zhavia didn’t have severe symptoms, but they did catch it young, and she was going to need corrective cardiac surgery to save her life—as all babies who are diagnosed with Tetralogy of Fallot. However, in Barbados, there isn’t access to pediatric heart surgeons to help patients such as Zhavia. That is when MemorialCare Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital Long Beach and its partnership with World Pediatric Project stepped in. Zhavia’s case was evaluated Saar Danon, M.D.; Babak Rahimi, M.D.; and Shaun Setty, M.D., and it was agreed to bring Zhavia to MemorialCare Miller Children's & Women's for her life-changing heart surgery, at no cost to Zhavia and her family.
World Pediatric Project connects infants and children from Central America and the Caribbean to children’s hospitals – like MemorialCare Miller Children’s & Women’s based on their expertise and care. Nine out of 10 children in low-resource countries, lack access to basic surgical care and as a result, each day, children needlessly suffer and often die. In this case, World Pediatric Project reached out to MemorialCare Miller Children’s & Women’s to help get Zhavia the life-saving pediatric cardiac specialty care she needed that only children’s hospitals can provide. The hospital and its Cherese Mari Laulhere Children’s Heart Institute physicians agreed to provide this care at no cost.
And with that, 6-month-old, Zhavia and her mother, Shenica, were whisked off from their Barbados home to Long Beach, Calif. – where they stayed at the Long Beach Ronald McDonald House for free, and were provided housing and warm meals. Zhavia’s first order of business was a pre-operation (pre-op) visit in the Cherese Mari Laulhere Children’s Village at MemorialCare Miller Children’s & Women’s – where outpatient appointments and follow-up care are in a kid-friendly clinic, with design flows that don’t make families have to wait a long time between blood draws and check-ups.
During her pre-op visit the Children’s Heart Institute clinical team took some scans of her heart and ensured that her little body was healthy and fit enough for surgery. In addition, they shared the echocardiogram images with the surgeons so they could see the precise defect and how to surgically correct the issue.
“Zhavia sure is a fighter,” says Babak Rahimi, M.D., pediatric cardiologist, Children’s Heart Institute, MemorialCare Miller Children’s & Women’s. “She was very brave, traveling to a new community, with a bunch of strangers, poking and prodding her. I have never seen such a calm baby.”
Zhavia’s initial pre-op appointment in the Children’s Village showed she was ready for surgery. The next step for little Zhavia was to take her into surgery. Shaun Setty, M.D., pediatric cardiac surgeon, along, with other members of the surgical team, performed a roughly five-hour surgery on her little heart.
A crucial member of this team is a specialized pediatric perfusionist, who under the supervision of an attending physician, is responsible for selecting the appropriate equipment and techniques necessary for life support or supplementation of the cardiopulmonary and circulator system of a child, including the safe monitoring and analysis of physiologic conditions.
Zhavia’s surgery was a complete success— but she did experience open heart surgery, so her next step was to recover in the Cardiothoracic Intensive Care Unit (CTICU) – a special unit in the Cherese Mari Laulhere Pediatric Intensive Care Unit – that is solely dedicated to babies, children and teenagers who have undergone heart surgery. She was hospitalized for five days – but her mom, Shenica, was by her side every moment. A member of the World Pediatric Project, Kate Corbett, interim executive director, also was by her side at the pre-op appointment and checked in with her often throughout her stay via phone.
“The other day Shenica had a moment of tears,” says Kate. “It was right after Zhavia was out of surgery and she was in the CTICU and a team of people dropped of a care package for her. She asked me ‘How will I ever repay them?’ The team at MemorialCare Miller Children’s & Women’s had provided her daughter with the lifesaving care that she desperately needed, and she felt so supported while being so far away from home. I told her, “Really extraordinary people are in this world who believe all children deserve the opportunity to have the care they need and the opportunity to live a full life.”
About a week later, Zhavia and Shenica returned to the Children’s Village one last time, as a follow-up to surgery. As Shenica held Zhavia, Dr. Rahimi checked her small chest now with a scar and walked her through what scar tissue looks like and how over time it will be less noticeable. He told her they were cleared to go home, two weeks earlier than expected, she was recovering so well she would be home in time for the Christmas holiday.
Shenica smiled widely as Dr. Rahimi handed her paperwork to take back to her cardiologist at home for follow-up care. As all kids born with Tetralogy of Fallot, Zhavia will need one more heart operation when she’s a teenager, but her outlook is bright – thanks to a group who believe all kids deserve to grow up healthy.