Oaklee Slaton’s short life thus far has been full of hardships and hospitalizations. But thanks to a miracle and a successful transplant surgery at Children’s of Alabama, she’s well on her way to celebrating her first birthday.
Oaklee was born in July 2020 after being diagnosed in utero with hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS). Doctors discovered the diagnosis by chance when her mother, Alexis Atchley, was referred to doctors in Birmingham because she had a two-vessel umbilical cord. “I was 22 weeks pregnant at the time,” she says. “We thought that we were just checking that everything was still ok, but thankfully, they found the much bigger problem.”
After the discovery of HLHS, doctors worked with Alexis to create a birth plan, which included Oaklee’s birth being moved to Birmingham instead of at home in Albertville and for her to be immediately transferred to Children’s afterward for the first of three heart procedures, the Norwood procedure, to begin the repair of her heart. She had the procedure at three days old. “We were all expecting for that first surgery to happen at about 10 days old, but she was at the perfect weight to go ahead and get it, so they felt no need to wait,” Alexis adds.
Doctors hoped that after a few weeks of recovery in the hospital that Oaklee would be able to go home, but her heart continued to struggle. At one point, she went into cardiac arrest, and eventually she had to be placed on the ECMO machine, where she spent eight days. “The day she came off ECMO, I got to hold her for the very first time,” Alexis says. “While holding her though, I realized she was twitching. After some testing, doctors learned she was having seizures.”
Oaklee’s hospital stay continued. She was also placed on the heart transplant list, yet her chances of getting a heart were slim. “Her antibodies were too high, so a lot of hearts that would work for most kids weren’t going to work for Oaklee,” Alexis explains. “The doctors talked to us about it and prepared us for it, but we all had hope.”
At three months old, Oaklee underwent the second heart surgery, the Glenn procedure. “Doctors had to go ahead and intervene, because the Norwood procedure was failing her,” Alexis says. “She unfortunately didn’t recover from it very well. Her heart just wasn’t responding well enough.”
Soon after, Oaklee officially ended up in heart failure. As she declined, the palliative care talks began. “You could see every single day that she was getting worse,” Alexis says. “The doctors were so kind in talking through the options with us, and it was so hard, as it was just a few weeks before Christmas, but we knew she wouldn’t make it to the day. But that’s when our miracle happened.”
On December 11, 2020, Alexis got the call that was hoped for but honestly never expected: Oaklee had a new heart. “It was the most exciting thing that could have ever happened,” Alexis says. “But as excited as I was, a part of my heart broke, because I knew while that meant my little girl could live, another family lost a child.”
Oaklee’s seven-and-a-half-month stay in the hospital culminated in a successful heart transplant surgery, and soon after, she celebrated her first Christmas. She’s still undergoing physical, occupational, and speech therapies to catch up developmentally, but she’s otherwise thriving and inching toward the celebration of her first birthday. “I cannot stress enough how amazing the doctors and nurses at Children’s are,” Alexis says. “They walked with us through the hardest time of our lives, and they took care of us along the way. I felt like I was with family while taking care of my child. Children’s is simply the best.”