Georgia toddler already veteran of open heart surgery

Image 1 of 5

Phoebe Harrington and her husband Benjamin Dumas remember how lucky they felt when Benji, their second child, was born November 30, 2015.

He was perfect, and beautiful. But there was one small thing.

"To me, he breathed fast, and that was actually something I noticed right away,” says Harrington. "I asked all the nurses, ‘Is he breathing fast? Is this normal?’ And they said it was periodic breathing, which is babies breathe fast, and then they breathe slow."

Then, the day they were discharged, a nurse heard a murmur in Benji's heart,  which is typically not a big deal.

"It's just a noise that is created when you have turbulence of blood flow,” says Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Sibley Heart Center cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Subhadra Shashidharan.

"So we went to the pediatrician,” says Harrington, “And the murmur was actually pretty significant. It wasn't dying down." Benji was sent for more tests, and the family was eventually referred to family Dr. Shashidharan. The news was not good.  

"Benji had a very large ventricular septal defect,” says Dr. Shashidharan.  “In simple terms, that's a hole between the bottom chambers of his heart. It was large, and that was large and that was why he was having a lot of blood flow going through his lungs, and his lungs were getting flooded."

The Sibley Heart Center team hoped to treat Benji's symptoms, and delay any possible surgery until he was 6 months old and stronger. 

But he wasn't able to eat, wasn't growing, and he was showing signs of heart failure. "And he was breathing extremely fast, over 100 times per minute,” says his mother.  “It was like he was running a marathon."

So, when Benji was barely 3 months old in January of 2016, he underwent surgery. He weighed just 9 pounds. His heart was the size of a small strawberry. "Obviously it's open heart surgery, a big incision,” says Dr. Shashidharan.   “We have to stop their heart and lungs to work on the heart and lungs."

The hole was bigger than expected, but Dr. Shashidharan was able to patch it, using a small piece tissue take from the lining of Benji's heart.  

Within a couple of days. Phoebe says their baby was smiling. "And what I really noticed was his breathing,” she says. “It went way down. I noticed it immediately."

Now, months later, Benji is healthy. "It's like he's done a 180,” says his mom.  “And he's just thriving, thriving like as any baby should."

The family recently sent Dr. Shashidharan a thank you note.  In it were photos of her holding Benji, this baby, whose tiny heart she helped heal.

"She saved his life, with her little hands,” Phoebe Harrington says.  “She went in and mended his heart."