Juliet's Story: A Mom Tells the Story of Her Toddler's Heart Surgery
A Mother's Story
You don't have to be a mother to imagine how horrible it would be to learn your toddler needed heart surgery. That's what happened to Jackie Ealy, who also happened to be six months pregnant at the time.
Ealy's daughter, Juliet, turned two on January 28, 1999. But the birthday celebration turned serious when Juliet's pediatrician recommended she see a cardiologist. Several nervous days later, the cardiologist took Juliet's blood pressure and pulse at her wrist and legs. He made his diagnosis in ten minutes: coarctation of the aorta
, a congenital defect that obstructs blood flow to the lower body. Ealy had two choices, he told her–surgery or angioplasty
"He said we could wait six months to a year–until after the baby was born. But I wanted to do it as soon as possible, while I could still devote my full attention to Juliet," says Ealy.
Ealy's desire to do what was best for Juliet meant factoring in the opinions of doctors, not just relying on them to give her answers. During the next two weeks, she learned as much as she could about her daughter's congenital heart condition. She researched hospitals and doctors, got a second opinion–and then a third one when the second doctor, unlike the first, recommended angioplasty.
"Coarctation of the aorta is a narrowing of the aorta, which causes restricted blood flow to the body. Juliet's upper body pressure was too high and her lower body pressure was too low. To compensate for her condition, her body had made collateral blood vessels and her kidneys were working extra hard," explains Ealy. "The surgery, which required a four-day hospital stay, instead of an overnight one for the angioplasty, called for placing clamps on either side of her aorta, removing the constricted section, then stitching the two healthy sections together. The doctors told me both procedures were very safe, but the angioplasty seemed more risky to me–that maybe it would cause an aneurysm."
Then Ealy did a wise thing. She took a break. "I spent a week just playing with my daughter. It really helped me put things in perspective. I realized how lucky my husband and I were that Juliet's condition wasn't an emergency. It gave us the luxury of time. We were also fortunate to live in L.A.–where we had so many top, top surgeons to choose from."
The Ealys decided on the surgery, entrusting Vaughn Starnes, M.D., with the L.A. Children's Hospital to do the 40-minute procedure.
"Juliet could be clingy, at times, but she was a fantastic little patient," remembers Ealy. "On surgery day, they gave her a sedative. Later the nurses took her, and she said, ‘Bye, Mommy. Bye, Daddy.' It wasn't a traumatic parting."
Ealy had prepared her daughter well. They had read books about the hospital and had talked about Juliet's heart. "I told her, ‘There's a little part of you, right near your heart that's crying just a little bit. You're not sick, but your heart has a little problem and it's much better to fix it. You'll have to stay in bed, but not for long. I won't be able to pick you up, but I'll be able to hold your hand and kiss you.'"
Now nearly eight months pregnant, Ealy stayed at the hospital during the day and slept there at night. "L.A. Children's Hospital is a fantastic place. I moved in during those four days," she recalls. "The hospital has about eight to 10 beds near the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit. And my husband was in the hospital every evening, reading and singing to Juliet, so I could rest."
After surgery, Juliet had two IVs, one from her neck, the other from her foot. A drainage tube protruded from her chest. Leads were taped to her chest and a blood oxygen meter was taped to her foot. And along her back, just below her scapula, was the three-inch surgical scar.
What helped Ealy stay calm, she says, was seeing the damaged portion of Juliet's aorta, which Dr. Starnes had removed during surgery. "About one centimeter in length, it was filled with a thick, solid material. So instead of having an opening about the diameter of a thick pen, it was smaller than the spoke of a bicycle wheel," recalls Ealy. "It made me 100 percent positive we'd done the right thing."
As for Juliet, her recovery was remarkably quick. The day she came home from the hospital she was jumping around and climbing on furniture. A week later, she no longer needed to take blood pressure medicine. And two weeks later, Juliet was completely healed. That's when her little brother, Kyle, was born.