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Jah’El’s story: After congenital heart surgery, a family is ready to write their next chapter

Jah’El’s story: After congenital heart surgery, a family is ready to write their next chapter

When Tamika Dawkins and Ellis Sandifer found out they were expecting a child, Tamika was already six months along in her pregnancy. The couple was thrilled after learning the news. They had always wanted to have children, but they were not in a rush to start a family, until they had settled into their lives together. But hearing the news, both were more than ready to embark on this next chapter.

Because Tamika was already well into her second trimester, her first ultrasound included a full anatomy scan to measure the growth and development of the baby’s body and organs as well as the baby’s gender.

“I always knew I would be the one to give my mother a grandson,” Tamika said. “I have sisters and they all had girls, but I knew I would have a son.”

At the appointment, Tamika’s prediction was confirmed: she was, indeed, having a son. But that happy news was dimmed when the physician explained that the ultrasound showed a serious and complex abnormality with the baby’s heart.

“It was a joyful feeling, but we felt sad at the same time,” Tamika recalled. “This was our first child together and we were so happy to know we were having a son, but to know in that same moment that something was wrong with his heart gutted us.”

Tamika was referred to Children’s Hospital New Orleans for diagnosis and close monitoring. The Heart Center at Children’s Hospital New Orleans specializes in complex pediatric heart conditions, with a full spectrum of pediatric specialists and sub-specialists.

During one of her first appointments, she met Dr. Shannon Powell, the pediatric and fetal cardiologist who would care for her son’s heart before and after his birth. The two connected immediately.

“I’m from Cincinnati and she was in Cincinnati for her fellowship, so we bonded over that,” Tamika said. “She is a great cardiologist and means so much to me. I adore her. She really has helped guide me through this whole process.”

Dr. Powell explained to Tamika the extent of her son’s extremely rare heart condition, which included ventricular inversion with double outlet right ventricle, sub-pulmonary ventricular septal defect, d-malposed great vessels, and a hypoplastic aortic arch with severe coarctation.

Because of the severity of his condition, the baby would need surgery shortly after birth. Dr. Powell, along with the rest of the care team at Children’s Hospital, prepared Tamika and Ellis for the next steps, including what would happen in the hours and days after their son was born.

“They explained that he would need to be transferred to Children’s Hospital New Orleans and placed in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit (CICU) shortly after I gave birth, and that he would have to have surgery within the next few days,” Tamika recalled.

The anticipation of that surgery was almost too much for Tamika to bear. She grew anxious and often felt sad, but she drew on her inner strength to remain positive and optimistic for her baby.

“I wanted to be strong for him,” Tamika said. “Your baby feels what you feel, so I tried to practice gratitude and be happy. I knew I was carrying a precious gift and I couldn’t stay upset about the situation because I didn’t want my son to feel that.”

Tamika began journaling and learned how to meditate to help cope with the stress and uncertainty. “I also got into yoga and crystals and really went on this whole spiritual journey,” Tamika said. “Later, after I had given birth, people would comment on how positive I am, but it was something I worked at. I would cry my eyes out but then wipe my tears away before opening the doors to the CICU.”

Finally, on August 5, 2020, Jah’El Sandifer was born. Tamika got to spend a few precious moments with him before he was transferred to the CICU at Children’s Hospital New Orleans. Because Tamika had to stay at her local hospital to recover, Ellis went with Jah’El and stayed with him until he was able to pick Tamika up from their local hospital.

“That was one of the hardest things we ever had to go through, but I’m so happy his dad was with him,” Tamika said. “He stayed strong and calm for me and Jah’El, and I truly admire his strength.”

One week later, on August 13, 2020, Jah’El underwent his first major heart surgery to fix some of the structural abnormalities of his heart. The surgery was performed by Dr. Timothy Pettitt, pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon at Children’s Hospital New Orleans.

“This surgery involved a repair of his hypoplastic arch and the coarctation of the aorta, which required us to remove the narrow section of the aorta and reconnect the two ends of the aorta,” Dr. Pettitt said. “We also placed a band around the pulmonary artery to reduce the diameter of that artery, which reduces blood flow and helps limit pulmonary over-circulation and edema.”

After the surgery, Jah’El was monitored closely in the CICU and then the NICU at Children’s Hospital, until he was strong enough to be discharged home. Tamika left her job and stayed home to care for Jah’El because his heart condition made the germ exposure at daycare riskier for him.

Before her pregnancy, she was an infant teacher at a local school, so she had the expertise to help him stay on track with his development and milestones. Although she was so grateful to have the opportunity to spend this time with her son, she missed the workforce and being a part of a professional team. Still, she was very thankful to have a partner who was able to take care of both her and their son.

Just three days after Jah’El turned two years old, on August 8, 2022, he underwent his second major surgery to address the structural abnormalities of his heart. This surgery was performed by Dr. Frank Pigula, Chief of Pediatric Cardiothoracic Surgery and Co-Director of the Heart Center at Children’s Hospital New Orleans.

“We performed what is called a double-switch operation, which addresses the transposition of the great arteries,” Dr. Pigula said. “Essentially, we ‘switch’ the return of blood flow into the heart, and then ‘switch’ the blood flow out of the heart, hence the name, ‘double switch’ operation. By doing so, we keep the blue blood going to the lungs, the red blood going to the body, and all the blood pumped by the correct heart chambers. Jah’El’s case was complicated by the need to close a hole in the heart known as a ventricular septal defect or VSD.”

The second surgery was a success, and Jah’El has recovered even quicker than his care team expected.

“Everyone has been amazed at how strong and resilient he has been,” Tamika said. “We were told he would possibly have to be in the hospital for a month after this surgery, but he was discharged after just nine days. He really surprised everybody.”

Tamika said that while this is expected to be his last surgery, he will always be closely monitored by Dr. Powell to ensure no new complications arise. Nevertheless, having the major surgeries behind them brought a wave of relief for Tamika and Ellis.

“Now that he’s had his second surgery, I feel like we can finally heal with our son,” she said. “It’s been tough, but we all got through it together.”

Tamika and Ellis are ready to write their family’s next chapter, which includes school for Jah’El and an opportunity to get back to work for Tamika.

“I’m so excited for Jah’El to make friends and have that socialization,” Tamika said. “I think he’s going to love being in school and with groups of other children, and we can’t wait to watch him explore this new part of the world.”

Tamika said she and her family will always be thankful for the expert and compassionate care they received from Children’s Hospital New Orleans.

“The cardiac team is wonderful,” Tamika said. “They are so supportive of me and his dad. You can tell the nurses care and they love their job and the babies they care for. We are so grateful for all of them.”

To learn more about the Heart Center at Children’s Hospital New Orleans, please visit: