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Elijah’s inspiring journey: “heart warrior” achieves remarkable outcome after surgery for Tetralogy of Fallot

Elijah’s inspiring journey:  “heart warrior” achieves remarkable outcome after surgery for Tetralogy of Fallot

July 5, 2021 holds a double significance for Ashley and LaDeldrick Gillyard. It celebrates their 8th wedding anniversary, but also marks the day they learned they were expecting their third baby.

“Elijah was a total surprise to us,” said Ashley. “I had no symptoms of being pregnant. But when I missed my cycle that month, I decided to take a pregnancy test, and the test came back positive.”

The Gillyards are parents to two beautiful children: a 13-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son. When they found out they were expecting, they were happy and thrilled to expand their family.

Shortly after receiving the news of her pregnancy, Ashley came down with COVID-19, and had to quarantine for 14 days. Unfortunately, her last day of isolation coincided with her first scheduled follow-up appointment with her OB-GYN in Shreveport, forcing her to reschedule the appointment.

“As I was waiting to reschedule it, I started bleeding,” said Ashley. “I went to the ER and they told me I had an incomplete miscarriage. They could see the baby but could not detect a heartbeat. I emailed my OB-GYN, and she messaged me the next morning and told me to come in right away.”

The technician did an ultrasound, but Ashley thought she had lost her baby. She had miscarriages before, and assumed she probably would have to undergo a dilation and curettage (D&C), which is a surgical procedure to remove any remaining tissue from the uterus.

“When I saw two doctors come into the exam room, I thought this must be pretty serious,” said Ashley. “The doctor said I need you to prepare yourself for what I’m about to tell you. She said your pregnancy is viable. I sat there for a few minutes in disbelief. I felt like I grieved for nothing.”

It turned out Ashley had subchorionic hemorrhage, a condition where bleeding occurs beneath the chorion membranes that enclose the embryo in the uterus. She was put on bed rest for a month.

During the second trimester, Ashley described it as a “beautiful” experience with no complications. However, as she entered the third trimester, things took a turn for the worse. She had placenta previa, a condition where the placenta covers the cervix opening in the mother. If not addressed promptly, placenta previa can worsen, and lead to severe bleeding before or during childbirth.

Adding to her troubles, at 28 weeks, Ashley’s blood pressure suddenly spiked to a dangerous level. She had been diagnosed with preeclampsia, a potentially serious pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure. She had to be hospitalized due to her persistently high blood pressure. The only way to protect her and her baby’s health was through an early delivery.

On January 11, 2022, Ashley and LaDeldrick welcomed their son, Elijah, at a Shreveport hospital. He was born at 30 weeks via emergency Cesarean section, and weighed three pounds and three ounces.

“He came out screaming,” said Ashley. “I didn’t get to see him that first day because I was still recovering from my C-section. Dale took pictures of our baby, and he was tiny and so cute.”

Elijah was monitored in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). His lungs were underdeveloped having been born prematurely. He was on a CPAP machine, and had a feeding tube in his nose.

Then, two weeks after his birth, the Gillyards’ received unsettling news.

“They told us Elijah had a heart condition,” said Ashley. “At first they said it was just a heart murmur, but it never got better. So, they did more tests, and then they told us the diagnosis.”

Elijah had Tetralogy of Fallot (TOF), a serious congenital heart defect that involves a combination of four abnormalities that results in reduced oxygen levels in the blood that is pumped to the body. These defects include narrowing of the pulmonary artery, ventricular septal defect (opening in the wall between the right and left ventricles), overriding aorta, and enlargement of the right ventricle. Infants born with Tetralogy of Fallot can experience cyanosis, also known as “Tet spells,” which causes bluish discoloration of the skin and mucous membranes due to inadequate oxygenation.

On January 24, 2022, 2-week-old Elijah was airlifted to Children’s Hospital New Orleans, and was admitted to the Level 4 NICU, which provides the highest level of care to premature and critically ill babies. The Gillyards arrived the following day after a 5-hour drive from their home in Mansfield.

“It was heart-wrenching,” Ashley expressed. “When we got there, I couldn’t even hold our son because he was intubated. Seeing him in that state was incredibly difficult. The doctors wanted him to reach close to full term and gain more weight before performing surgery, given his small size.”

Two weeks after being admitted to the NICU, the nurses were able to remove the oxygen tube and transition him to regular oxygen. Another two weeks passed, and he no longer required oxygen support, except after his heart surgery. “Surprisingly, he started gaining weight relatively quickly,” said Ashley. “The nurses attempted bottle feeding, but he would breathe too fast, and they were concerned about the risk of aspiration. Thankfully, I was able to nurse him, which was wonderful.”

After two months in the NICU, Elijah was ready for his TOF surgery on March 27, 2022.

Elijah’s life-saving surgery

The Gillyards met with Elijah’s heart surgeon, Dr. Frank Pigula, chief of pediatric cardiothoracic surgery and co-director of the Heart Center at Children’s Hospital. He explained their son’s heart condition and detailed the plan his surgical team would undertake to repair Elijah’s heart issue.

“TOF is a very common form of congenital heart disease,” said Dr. Pigula. “Major features of TOF is a ventricular septal defect, and a greater or lesser degree of right ventricular outflow obstruction. This obstruction restricts blood flow to the lungs, and the baby can be oxygen starved in severe cases. We closed Elijah’s VSD, and relieved the obstruction to blood flow between his heart and lungs.”

After Elijah’s surgery, his chest remained open for one week due to swelling, and his recovery was challenging. His lungs had collapsed, and upon closure, he experienced rapid breathing while on regular oxygen. However, with time, his lungs improved, and he ultimately recovered successfully. He was in the cardiac intensive care unit (CICU) for a month before he was ready to come home.

After returning home, Elijah was doing great, and he continued to have regular check-ups with his pediatric cardiologist in Shreveport. However, during one of his appointments, the cardiologist observed Elijah’s pulmonary valve was narrowing. For a more specialized evaluation, he sent the images to the cardiology team at Children’s Hospital in New Orleans. Upon reviewing the results, they determined that a heart catheterization procedure was necessary to address the narrowing.

“The cath procedure didn’t produce the results they had hoped for,” said Ashley. “Dr. Pigula said Elijah’s narrowing extended out into the branches of the pulmonary arteries, and was too thick for the balloon. So, a few days later on April 5, Dr. Pigula re-operated on Elijah to surgically patch the narrowed area.”

Elijah recovered from surgery relatively quickly, and he was discharged home three days later.

Today, 1-year-old Elijah is thriving. He has a healthy appetite and is a playful and amusing baby. His older siblings are enamored with him, making him the perfect addition to their family of five.

“Elijah is our little sweetheart,” said Ashley. “We are thankful to Dr. Pigula, and the medical staff who treated him, including his pediatric cardiologist in Shreveport who collaborated closely with the doctors at Children’s Hospital. They all helped contribute to Elijah’s outcome and recovery.”

Click here for more information on our nationally recognized cardiothoracic surgery program at Children’s Hospital New Orleans. Click here to learn how our heart team provides specialized care to patients with TOF and other congenital heart conditions to improve their long-term outcomes.