May 22, 2017 is a day forever marked on the hearts of the Williams family. Their youngest child, then 1-year-old Parker, born with a congenital heart defect, was wheeled back to surgery at Children’s of Alabama to receive a new heart.
“It all happened so very quickly,” said Parker’s mother, Ashley. “There were 10 of us in the waiting room that night. They took Parker back at 10 p.m., and finished at 9:30 a.m., the following morning.
“I remember telling my Mom in the moment that any mother should be extremely scared, but I had this calming sense of peace that everything was going to be OK.”
Parker has beaten the odds since the day she was born. Four days before a scheduled Caesarean section, Ashley learned Parker would only have minutes to live. An ultrasound showed Parker had a severe heart defect that is virtually always fatal. But through fastidious planning and an unprecedented approach to treatment, Parker survived.
Parker’s heart had only three chambers instead of the normal four. She also had an intact atrial septum which blocked the flow of oxygenated blood to the rest of her body.
The only way to save Parker was to place her on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, seconds after birth. ECMO is a heart-lung bypass machine which oxygenates the blood and pumps it through the body. Then she would immediately need surgery to unblock the septum – all within minutes of delivery.
The challenge in most hospitals is that all of the components necessary to provide this life-saving care are located in different areas – often different floors – of the facility. But when the Benjamin Russell Hospital for Children at Children’s of Alabama was built in 2012, the plans included a 40-foot hallway connection from the Joseph S. Bruno Pediatric Heart Center on the fourth floor to the Women and Infants Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham where so many high-risk babies are born. With labor and delivery, critical care and cardiac care in close proximity to one another, precious time is saved when newborns are fighting for their lives.
As planned, Parker was transferred directly to the cath lab, where the planned procedure was successfully performed. Doctors were able to wean her off the ECMO machine after a couple of days. Over the next several weeks and months, Parker underwent two more heart surgeries, experienced multiple complications, and on St. Patrick’s Day 2017, she was placed on the transplant list.
Ashley didn’t expect to receive the call so soon. It had only been two months since Parker was placed on the transplant list. The wave of calm Ashley experienced in the waiting room proved to be a foreshadowing of brighter days to come.
“She is thriving. We’ve stayed out of the hospital and she hasn’t gotten sick,” Ashley said. “It’s still kind of a shock … I don’t think I’ve processed it all still. It’s been hard, but you stop and realize what God has given you. Parker has changed my life and everybody else’s life.”
Today, 2-year-old Parker is crawling and exploring the world, playing with her older sisters and getting a kick out of riding in the buggy at the grocery store – it’s the small things when you’ve spent half your life in the hospital, Ashley said.
“The only time she cries is when someone is not in the room with her giving her attention,” said Ashley, laughing. “I know people will think I’m saying this because I’m her mom, but she’s seriously the happiest baby I’ve ever known.”