5-month-old baby’s successful heart surgery highlights importance of life-saving research

‘In general, we think that the average screening rate for kids with congenital heart disease is probably only about 50% across the nation’

SAN ANTONIO – Christie Wyatt says she found out she was pregnant at the beginning of 2022 and, unfortunately, lost her baby. After the loss, she didn’t expect to learn she would be pregnant once again.

“It was an unexpected joy at the same time and fear from losing one previously,” said Wyatt.

Wyatt would soon give birth to her very first boy, whom they named Dante, symbolizing strength, perseverance, and longevity. It’s a name Wyatt would discover was more than fitting for her little boy.

Wyatt and her family were hopeful for a normal and healthy pregnancy this time, and it all appeared to be going that way until a prenatal screening close to 30 weeks alerted her doctor that something with little Dante was not OK.

“I think it’s scary for any parent when you have something that you’re not anticipating because everyone feels like, ‘Oh, pregnancy, it’ll be healthy,’ and you know it’s going to be great,” said Wyatt.

Joy and excitement quickly turned into worry and uncertainty for Wyatt and her family.

In the early days of his life, little Dante faced a challenge that would test his tiny heart. Wyatt said it was a third ultra-sound that essentially saved his life.

“Close to 30 weeks, the doctor had done my ultrasound and caught that there was potentially something with the heart. They just weren’t sure exactly what it was,” said Wyatt.

Surgeon and physician Dr. Aaron Abarbanel at University Health and UT Health San Antonio, who also serves as an associate professor of surgery in the department of cardio-thoracic surgery, says Dante was diagnosed with a rare heart defect that posed severe health risks, making Dante’s chances of survival uncertain.

“In Dante’s case, he was diagnosed with what we would call a hypo-plastic heart syndrome, which means he was missing a big pumping chamber of his heart,” said Abarbanel.

Abarbanel said the prenatal screening that detected Dante’s abnormality is often an ultrasound not performed in many cases.

“In general, we think that the average screening rate for kids with congenital heart disease is probably only about 50% across the nation. So, it’s a big push to get more understanding of how we can get the screening out to families and help these families out for sure,” said Dr. Abarbanel.

“A lot of these moms actually don’t know before they’re born that their child can have a severe heart defect and find out either before they go home or sometimes, they will find out after they go home because their baby will become extremely unstable,” said Abarbanel.

Abarbanel said, in Dante’s case, he was extremely fortunate. He had a prenatal screening with a fetal echocardiogram that diagnosed the problem.

“Mom had some time to think about options, had time to explore things,” said Abarbanel.

Wyatt said, “I think after he was born, my initial thing was, is everything going to be OK? Can he make it to surgery? Is surgery even a possibility? Because I knew going into this that even after he was born, they still have to check him outside of me to make sure that it’s something that can be done and corrected to the ability that they could.”

Dante underwent the complex Norwood Procedure at just days old. The surgery builds a new, larger aorta.

“From a medical standpoint, back in the 1970s, these kids would uniformly not have survived,” said Abarbanel.

In the ‘90s, chances of survival were only 50/50, according to Dr. Abarbanel.

Thanks to cutting-edge research and advances in pediatric cardiology, it is now possible for babies like Dante to have a chance at a normal, healthy life.

“Hopefully, at some point, we’ll get to a point where all the funds and everything that’s gathered for these kinds of things make the difference. Research is just amazing. It helps in so many ways,” said Wyatt.

The Children’s Heart Foundation has organized the San Antonio Congenital Heart Walk that will be happening on Saturday, Oct. 14, to raise the necessary funds for life-saving research.

“One of the great things that we have that goes on in this community that supports these families is the Children’s Heart Foundation. It’s a nationwide foundation that raises money for research, so we can investigate some of these things, like how do we support these babies better, how do we understand the organ systems that are affected by kids with this heart disease,” said Dr. Abarbanel.

According to the Congenital Heart Walk coordinator, they expect at least 1,000 walkers, and the event is expected to be one of the largest group of walkers at any of the 31 Congenital Heart Walk events in the country.

The journey has been a roller coaster of emotions for Dante’s family. Wyatt expressed her gratitude for the medical team at University Health and the research that made little Dante’s survival possible. She says Dante’s strength and the support they have received have been their pillars of hope.

“All the nurses and all the staff, everybody, the technicians, everybody played their part, and everybody is the reason why my son is here today. So, all of them are important. All of them mean something to me. Every last one of them,” said Wyatt.

While Dante’s story is a testament to the progress in pediatric cardiology, many more children and families face similar challenges. Dr. Abarbanel and the group of medical professionals who dedicate their lives to saving lives hope they can continue to make strides, ensuring that every child has the opportunity to grow up and live a healthy life.

“Google the Children’s Heart Foundation Walk for San Antonio. It’ll pop right up, and there will be a University Health team that they can donate through. And if you can’t donate, spread the word, share it on social media, spread the word that ‘Hey, there are kids out there with heart disease that are being helped by this program,’” said Abarbanel.

Dante is scheduled to have another surgery. Abarbanel says the first operation was the biggest.

The upcoming surgery will be the Glenn Procedure, which will keep little Dante in the hospital for about two weeks, followed by the Fontan Procedure, which is performed around 3 to 4 years of age.

“But then after that, it’s lifelong follow-up because we know that, since he’s missing parts of his heart, at some point, he’s going to have to be considered for advanced therapy, potentially a heart transplant,” Abarbanel said. “Another area where we are still understanding what the effects of missing parts of the heart are having on the liver, the lungs, the lymphatics, and ongoing areas of research that we still need to understand better.”

For more information on the San Antonio Congenital Heart Walk and ways to donate, visit www.childrensheartfoundation.org.

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About the Authors:

Jonathan Cotto is a reporter for KSAT’s Good Morning San Antonio. He’s a bilingual award-winning news reporter and he joined KSAT in 2021. Before coming to San Antonio, Cotto was reporting along the U.S.-Mexico border in South Texas. He’s a veteran of the United States Navy.

Before starting at KSAT in August 2011, Ken was a news photographer at KENS. Before that he was a news photographer at KVDA TV in San Antonio. Ken graduated from San Antonio College with an associate's degree in Radio, TV and Film. Ken has won a Sun Coast Emmy and four Lone Star Emmys. Ken has been in the TV industry since 1994.