A Miracle Patient Flies from El Paso for Lifesaving Care
Leticia and Jonathan Jimenez were thrilled, albeit surprised, when they found out they were expecting their third child. Already parents to a 14-year-old and 4-year-old, the couple, both teachers from El Paso, Texas, learned they were having a baby boy last December when Leticia was already five months along.
Because Leticia had a history of complications during her previous pregnancies, she was referred to a maternal-fetal medicine specialist for extra monitoring throughout the remainder of her pregnancy. During one of her initial appointments with that specialist, the couple learned that their baby had an arrhythmia, or an irregular heartbeat.
“We were told there were concerns about his heart, but they didn’t know to what extent,” Jonathan recalled. “The arrhythmia was the main concern, and that’s what they were looking at every time we went for an appointment.”
By the time Leticia was 36 weeks along—one month before her due date—her care team in El Paso determined she would need to deliver her baby as soon as possible due to concerns about his growth. And so, on April 21, 2022, Leticia delivered Jonathan Jr., via C-section.
“When he was born, his oxygen levels were very low, and his coloration was a little purple, so they gave him oxygen right away,” Jonathan recalled. “They were going to admit him to the NICU, but the oxygen helped and he was looking better, so he was able to stay in our room.”
The following day, they ordered an echocardiogram to check on Jonathan Jr.’s heart. They then discharged the Jimenez family home, with instructions to follow up with a local cardiologist.
The first available appointment, however, was two weeks away.
Leticia and Jonathan knew how to care for a newborn. After all, they had done it twice before. Still, they had an anxious feeling that something was wrong with Jonathan Jr.
“Leticia could tell something was wrong,” Jonathan said. “Call it mother’s instinct, but she knew he was not OK.”
On the day of the appointment, Leticia and Jonathan met with local pediatric cardiologist Dr. Vibhash Kumar. He explained Jonathan Jr. had a heart murmur and he would be performing an echocardiogram to examine its structure and circulatory function. The parents nodded and anxiously watched as Dr. Kumar ran the probe over the baby’s chest.
“We saw his face change as he did it,” Jonathan said. “Then he told us what was wrong: coarctation of the aorta and a ventricular septal defect. Our son was being kept alive because his ductus arteriosus remained open; he had a patent ductus arteriosus (PDA).”
The words stung as Dr. Kumar went into detail about the severity of Jonathan Jr.’s condition. He explained that a coarctation is a narrowing of the aorta, which is the large blood vessel that carries oxygen-rich blood from the left ventricle of the heart to all the organs in the body. For babies with a coarctation, the left ventricle must work extra hard to force the blood through the narrowed vessel. This can lead to not enough oxygenated blood flow to the organs of the body. In addition to the coarctation, Jonathan Jr. had a ventricular septal defect (VSD).
Jonathan and Leticia were in shock. Dr. Kumar was calm but straightforward. He said they would wait 10 minutes and run the test again. When he was sure of the diagnosis, he told them they needed to leave immediately and travel across the state to CHRISTUS Children’s where they could get the highly specialized care their baby’s heart required.
“At this point, every second counted,” Jonathan said. “We were like, ‘What are our options?’ and he said, ‘There are no option. This is life or death.’”
As Jonathan rushed home to pack clothes and arrange for childcare for their older kids, Leticia and Jonathan Jr. were taken by ambulance to a hospital in downtown El Paso, where an emergency team intubated Jonathan Jr. and stabilized him for transport to The Children’s Hospital.
The drive from El Paso to San Antonio is more than seven hours—without stopping—so Jonathan caught the first commercial flight he could. When he landed, he learned that his wife and son’s air ambulance had been delayed because of inclement weather. Anxious for their arrival, he decided to head straight to CHRISTUS Children's and wait.
When he arrived at CHRISTUS Children's, he made his way straight to the NICU.
“I just sat down in the waiting room there, I didn’t know what else to do,” Jonathan said.
He didn’t have to wait long until a nurse came to check on him.
“The nurse was so kind. She asked if I had a place to stay and then she got me an application and set me up with a room at the Ronald McDonald House so that I could get some sleep,” Jonathan said.
The Ronald McDonald House has 16 rooms inside the hospital similar to what you would find in a hotel, but located just one floor up from the NICU. Their mission is to provide a safe and supportive environment for families who are away from home while receiving essential medical services at CHRISTUS Children's.
Jonathan was thankful to have a room and a place to sleep, but he was also anxious for his family to arrive. He stayed in constant contact with Leticia, who told him that despite the intubation, their baby was still struggling to keep his oxygen levels high.
Finally, the next day, the three were reunited. Upon arrival, Jonathan Jr. was admitted to the NICU and placed under the care of Dr. Daniel Nento, a pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon with The Heart Center at CHRISTUS Children's.
“They evaluated him and ran every test, then they had a meeting with the entire team to create a plan for his surgery,” Jonathan said.
Ultimately, Dr. Nento’s team decided Jonathan Jr.’s cardiac surgery should be performed in stages. First, repair the life threatening coarctation and close the unneeded PDA. And when Johnathan Jr. is older and stronger, fix the VSD. In the meantime, the VSD could be controlled with medication. By doing the surgery in stages, Dr. Nento would be able to avoid an open-heart procedure in which Jonathan Jr. would be placed on a bypass machine. Instead, he was able to access the heart through the infant’s back, under the armpit. To fix the coarctation, he removed the narrow portion of the aortic arch and reattached the two ends so that blood would flow normally through the aorta. He also placed a patch around the reconstructed section to help it grow, and closed the PDA.
The surgery, which took place on May 12, was an overwhelming success.
“Dr. Nento was excellent,” Jonathan said. “Jonathan Jr. recovered in the PICU for a few days and was then transferred back to the NICU, where he stayed for just seven days.”
Jonathan said he recalls the entire care team being communicative, knowledgeable and supportive. Before the Jimenezes made the long drive back to El Paso, they received detailed instructions on how to care for their baby’s surgical incision, how to prepare his bottles with extra calories to help him grow stronger, and how to administer the medication for VSD.
By June 2, they were finally back home and reunited with the rest of their family. Today, they continue to receive follow-up care from their pediatrician and cardiologist in El Paso, and Jonathan Jr. is gaining weight by the day. Although there have been some ups and downs in his condition and Jonathon Jr. is still being monitored closely – with the possibility that he will need another major heart surgery soon – Leticia and Jonathan are grateful for the lifesaving care they received at CHRISTUS Children's, 550 miles away from home.
“We are doing a lot of massaging and trying to get him to move his arms more, because they are very stiff from all the time they were without blood,” Jonathan said. “We are actually thinking about moving to San Antonio so that we can be closer to the hospitaljust in case we ever need it again.”
Either way, they are anxious to get back to San Antonio to properly thank everyone who helped them during such an uncertain and difficult time.
“We are looking at opportunities for volunteering and donating to the Ronald McDonald House,” Jonathan said. “We really want to give back. We like to help others – that’s what we do – and we are so thankful for everyone who did so much for us.”
To learn more about The Heart Center at CHRISTUS Children's in San Antonio, visit https://www.christushealth.org/locations/childrens-hospital.