A Heartbeat That Made History: A 5th Grader Achieves a First

Gabriel’s body had been keeping a secret. And on an ordinary spring day, it finally spilled over.

“I heard the ambulances go by my office, and I just had a bad feeling.”

Call it mother’s intuition, but Anabel Gonzalez’ hunch was right. Minutes later she received a frantic phone call at work. Her fast-thinking mother had resuscitated Anabel’s then 10-year-old son, Gabriel, minutes earlier until the paramedics arrived. Out of nowhere, he had collapsed. Anabel raced home from work just in time to hear an EMT say, “We got a heartbeat.” And it felt like her own heart stopped.

Gabriel was rushed to a local hospital in the family’s hometown of Yuma where they recognized immediately that he needed pediatric expertise – STAT. His anxious, stunned parents split duties – Anabel tucked in the helicopter en route to Phoenix Children’s – Jesus (pronounced, Hey-sus), navigating an excruciating 3-hour drive to meet them there. Anabel barely had time to tell him what had happened.

“I knew he was going to the right place, and that I needed to get there safely,” he said. “So I just had to do my best to compose myself, otherwise I wouldn’t have been any help to anyone.”

It wouldn’t be the first time Jesus faced what seemed like an endless wait ahead.

A game-changing, innovative solution

In short order, it became clear Gabriel’s situation was dire.

After a series of tests, experts at the Heart Center at Phoenix Children’s gave the diagnosis: Dilated Cardiomyopathy. It’s when the left ventricle of the heart — the chamber responsible for pumping blood to the lungs and body — becomes enlarged and weakened. Gabriel’s tired “ticker” had finally run out of time.

Anabel and Jesus say there were no warning signs prior to that day, and doctors couldn’t say exactly what caused the decline. “We had very little time to process what happened; we just had to learn as much as we could and do our best to get him exactly what he needed,” Jesus shared.

Turns out, what he needed was a brand new heart. “If we didn’t act quickly, Gabriel wouldn’t have survived,” said Daniel Velez, MD, Division Chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Phoenix Children’s. Donor hearts, though, aren’t always in plentiful supply. 115,000 names are listed on the organ donation list waiting for lifesaving transplant surgeries, and a new patient is added every 10 minutes. But Gabriel had been routed to the right place.

The Heart Center at Phoenix Children’s is quickly gaining a reputation as a world-class, destination center. With expertise in transplant surgeries and a proven track-record of success, the team at the Heart Center devised an innovative solution to save Gabriel’s life. But first, someone had to advocate on Gabriel’s behalf.

One big step for Gabriel, one giant leap for pediatric medicine

Daniel Velez, MD, is a seasoned and celebrated heart surgeon at Phoenix Children’s. He has a reputation for going above and beyond for his patients, and he did not disappoint Gabriel. Dr. Velez petitioned SynCardia Systems to allow Gabriel to be fitted for their Total Artificial Heart, which is approved only for adult use. The lifesaving device serves as a “bridge” for patients waiting for a heart transplant, routing the circulation of blood to the lungs and other parts of the body. But, it had never been installed in a patient as young as Gabriel.

Anabel and Jesus say they were scared and nervous, but they knew Gabriel’s situation was grave. “For us, it was a risk worth taking, if it meant getting more time with him.”

Dr. Velez says he was confident that that operation would work. Using advanced imaging and 3D technologies, the team was able to determine the device would fit. They knew it would work, and it did. On April 20th of 2018, Gabriel’s failing heart was removed, and he became the youngest patient in the world to receive a Total Artificial Heart. That success will pave the way for other pediatric patients to receive the lifesaving devices.

Gabriel gets a little emotional when you ask him about the day his heart was removed. “It felt like something was missing,” he said. He traded his school backpack for the one that controlled his new device 24/7, and he and his family moved into what would become their new “home” at Phoenix Children’s. Gabriel had to remain at the Heart Center under constant surveillance at the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit (CVICU), until a donor heart became available.

Anabel and Jesus say Phoenix Children’s took exceptional care not just of Gabriel – but their entire family, especially their cardiologist, Michelle Ploutz, MD. “Gabriel couldn’t leave the room without a doctor, so Dr. Ploutz would take time out of her day to walk him down to the Zone so he could play. The Child Life team was also there with toys and games – not just for Gabriel, but for his 7-year-old sister, Aliyah,” Anabel remembers.

“It’s not often that you find people that will take care of your kids the way you would,” says Jesus. “That room was our home from April through July, and everyone at Phoenix Children’s helped us make it feel as normal as possible. We think Gabriel’s room was the best one there – they allowed us to fill it with posters, stuffed animals and electronics to keep him busy.”

But they still had another hill to climb, waiting for a donor heart to become available — one that was compatible with Gabriel.

“It felt like an eternity,” said Jesus. “Every day seemed like forever. But they assured us the chances were good, and the Total Artificial Heart was the loudest peace of mind we could ask for until then,” said Jesus, describing the relentless and pounding whir that indicated the device was successfully pumping blood. Fortunately, there would be an end to the waiting, after all.

News that brought fireworks

It was July 3rd. “We were just visiting with our family who had come to visit, when a nurse pulled me aside and said we needed to get lab work done for Gabriel right away.” She was quietly told the call they had been waiting for had come in, and a donor heart had become available for Gabriel. They needed to determine if it was a possible match. As it turned out, the news seemed to come in the nick of time.

That very evening, the whir begin to wane. The Total Artificial Heart had problems, and his parents panicked throughout the night until it was repaired. The next day couldn’t come soon enough.

Dr. Velez flew out to examine the heart himself to be certain it was the best possible organ for Gabriel; and then, says Jesus, it was “go-time.”

Watching their son being ushered in for transplant surgery on July 4th, Jesus said, was an emotional moment for them. “We were scared and nervous and excited all at once.” And so grateful to the family who chose to give the precious gift of life.

The surgery was a success, and today, Gabriel not only has a new heart, he has a newfound confidence. “He was a very shy kid before,” said his mom. “Now, he’s more open, and more playful. He breaks out in dances no matter who’s watching, and he makes a competition out of everything!”

Gabriel still sees his team every month for a checkup. Dr. Velez says he’s proud of the progress Gabriel has made, and that it makes him happy to see their family planning for the future. They get serious for a moment, and take it all in, holding each other and smiling.

“If it weren’t for Phoenix Children’s, I think we’d be telling a very different story,” whispers Jesus. I don’t think there would be a story to tell. We are so grateful to Phoenix Children’s, for saving our son.”

February is Heart Month. Support the Heart Center at Phoenix Children’s.

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