Noelle is a courageous, bright 3-year-old who is the center of her family. Her parents, Kathleen and Darren, and her five siblings are in awe of her resilience after all her heart's endured.
“She’s vibrant. She’s thriving. She’s alive, thanks to Phoenix Children’s,” says Kathleen, who is grateful to Noelle’s heart care team, “especially Dr. Velez,” whom she credits with saving her daughter’s life.
Fragile from the start
Noelle celebrated her third birthday in December 2022—a major milestone that wasn’t guaranteed. Shortly after her birth, Noelle was diagnosed with six congenital heart defects and admitted to a local neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), where she remained for months. During that time, Kathleen and Darren received a call that there was a newborn in need of a foster family who could care for a medically fragile child.
Although the couple had four grown children of their own and had fostered 23 children—most of whom were medically fragile—they didn’t hesitate to say yes.
“There’s such a need for specialized foster care,” says Kathleen. Her former work as a special education teacher and long
–time NICU volunteer at a local hospital inspired the couple to get licensed as foster parents for medically fragile children. They wanted to do something to “help these babies.”
Noelle underwent two open-heart surgeries during her time in the NICU, but they failed to repair her heart. She later underwent balloon pulmonary angioplasty, a minimally invasive procedure that helps patients like Noelle who aren’t good candidates for surgery. But she still wasn’t thriving, and she was considered too high risk for another open-heart procedure.
That’s when Kathleen contacted Phoenix Children’s Center for Heart Care and Daniel A. Velez, MD, division chief of cardiothoracic surgery and co-director of the center, for a second opinion. Dr. Velez told Kathleen and Darren that Noelle would indeed need a third surgery to correct her issues. Dr. Velez and his team’s expertise reassured the couple that Noelle’s heart was in the right hands.
Heartbeats of hope
In November 2021, Noelle underwent a complete repair of her enlarged aorta—a grueling 10-hour open-heart surgery. During the procedure, she flatlined for 4 1/2 minutes, but Dr. Velez and his team brought her back. Kathleen recalls the overwhelming fear of that day.
“A year ago, we didn’t know if she was coming back,” Kathleen says, choked with emotion. “But then she opened her eyes after surgery and said, ‘Hi, Momma!’ It was amazing.”
Today, Noelle’s living her best 3-year-old life and enjoying the spotlight. She’s doing news interviews about her medical journey and loves horses, babies, Peppa Pig and princesses.
Kathleen says she’s excited about Noelle’s bright future ahead—despite her need for lifelong care to monitor her heart and health.
“Her heart is as good as doctors can make it,” she says. “We’re taking things one day at a time.”
One out of every 100 children in the U.S. is born with a heart defect. Now is the time to invest in Phoenix Children's Center for Heart Care—for Arizona's children, and for patients like Noelle.