When Michelle learned that her baby would have Down syndrome, she felt scared. She didn't know a lot about the condition, so she worried about what the future would bring. Her husband, Zack, helped her stay positive.
"I didn't even think I could have children, so I just knew this child would be a miracle and a blessing," Zack says.
As Michelle researched more about Down syndrome, she learned that the condition happens when a child has a full or partial extra chromosome (chromosomes are tiny structures that store genes and genetic material). Children with Down syndrome often experience heart problems, trouble with vision and hearing and mild to moderate intellectual disabilities, which means they may learn or develop more slowly than other children their age.
"We realized we could still have all the family experiences we look forward to even though they might look a little different," Michelle says. "Now Cade just brings so much joy and happiness into our lives."
A second diagnosis
Since nearly 50% of children with Down syndrome are born with heart problems, Michelle's obstetrician connected her with Shannon Blalock, M.D., Pediatric Cardiologist at Pediatric Heart Specialists Tyler, which is part of the Children's Health℠ Care Network.
Using a fetal echocardiogram, Dr. Blalock took pictures of Cade's heart while he was in the womb. The images revealed a large hole in the center of his heart called an atrioventricular septal defect. He would need to go to Children's Health in Dallas for open heart surgery to repair it within the first year of life.
"Finding out that our son had a problem with such a vital organ was terrifying," Michelle says. "And to learn that he would need open heart surgery, where they turn off the heart and then restart it. You can't help but wonder, 'what if it doesn't turn back on?'"
Michelle and Zack found comfort knowing that The Heart Center at Children's Health is a top-ranked program and home to leading experts in pediatric heart surgery. They were also relieved to learn that Cade could get most of his care leading up to surgery close to home. Dr. Blalock had the ability to monitor their baby's heart from Tyler and work with the surgical team remotely to plan Cade's surgery.
The more time we spent with Cade’s care team, the more we realized we were in great hands. They helped us understand what to expect and answered all of our questions. Throughout this whole process, they never made me feel one bit of doubt.
"The more time we spent with Cade's care team, the more we realized we were in great hands," Zack says. "They helped us understand what to expect and answered all of our questions. Throughout this whole process, they never made me feel one bit of doubt."
Compassionate support and expert monitoring before Cade's Birth
Over the next few months, they had several doctor's appointments to plan for Cade's birth and surgery.
"Dr. Blalock really went above and beyond to support us," Michelle says. "She took it upon herself to find me a new OB/GYN when my original switched practices. I was on Medicaid at the time, and the doctor she recommended didn't accept it. But Dr. Blalock told her about our baby's situation and asked if there was any way she could take Medicaid, and she found a way."
Dr. Blalock and Robert "Jake" Jaquiss, M.D., Pediatric Cardiothoracic Surgeon and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center, determined that Cade wouldn't need surgery immediately after birth. Dr. Jaquiss was able to advise waiting until a few months after Cade was born, when he was bigger and the surgery would carry less risk.
Leading up to Cade's birth, Dr. Blalock conducted fetal echocardiograms, keeping a close eye on Cade's heart and making sure his heart problem wasn't getting any worse. Then the family hit another challenge: He wasn't growing enough and there were blood flow problems with the umbilical cord. He needed to be delivered six weeks early via C-section at a local hospital.
Cade spent the first eight weeks of his life in the NICU before finally going home with his family.
Preparing for surgery, recovering like a rockstar
In the months leading up to Cade's surgery, Dr. Blalock monitored Cade's heart closely and kept track of his growth. Cade got bigger and stronger every day. When Cade was about six months old, he was big enough for surgery. The family packed up the car and made the trip to Dallas.
Michelle and Zack spent their first days in Dallas learning the details of Cade's procedure. The surgery team made sure they knew exactly what to expect, drawing out the procedure and answering all of the couple's questions.
"We weren't expecting Dr. Jaquiss to spend so much time with us. He even gave me his cell phone number in case we had any questions," Michelle says. "He told us to call any time and that he couldn't wait to get Cade's heart fixed and see how he flourishes."
When the time came for Cade's surgery, Michelle and Zack were ready.
I'm a mom so of course I cried like a baby on the day of his surgery, but I had total faith in Cade's medical team. His doctors made us confident that everything was going to be fine.
A few hours later, the surgery was complete and the family reunited. Michelle and Zack stayed in Dallas, spending most of their time by Cade's side as he got stronger after surgery. In just three days, Cade met the criteria to be discharged from the ICU. A week later, they were headed back to Tyler.
"Dr. Jaquiss said in 30 years, he'd never had a kid recover from surgery so quickly, he said Cade recovered like a rockstar," Zack says.
Now nearly 2 years old, Cade loves playing with his dad more than anything. He sees Dr. Blalock every few months for routine scans and his heart is doing well. He's even managed to turn Michelle into a morning person — she can't wait to watch him wake up every morning because he rolls over and greets her with a huge smile.
"He was smiling in the NICU, he was smiling even when he had nothing to smile about," Zack says. "Cade's so inspiring because he's been thrown curve balls since before he was born and he just keeps smiling."
Ranked as one of the best cardiology programs in the country, Children's Health provides expert care for a wide range of heart conditions. We're working to expand our program to bring care closer to home for more families in Texas. Learn more about The Heart Center and the locations we serve.
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