Jesus Pereya was a healthy baby and toddler, living with his parents, brother and sister in Chandler, AZ. So when Jesus came down with what seemed like a respiratory illness at 15-months old, the family wasn’t too concerned. They never imagined their little boy would be undergoing a heart transplant just six months later.
The Diagnosis that Changed Everything
When Jesus’ parents took him to the hospital, they found out that he didn’t just have a virus - their son had an enlarged heart, making it difficult for him to breath.
After the diagnosis, Jesus immediately started therapy to make his heart stronger. He was followed in the clinic for several months and they tried to get his heart a little bit better. It did get better, but not enough to allow Jesus to grow normally.
So, on July 7, 2011, Jesus was admitted to Phoenix Children’s Hospital for further work up by the heart transplant team.
His Best Chance was a Heart Transplant
When the team in the Phoenix Children’s Heart Center first saw him, it was clear Jesus wasn’t going to grow and thrive. Dr. Stephen Pophal is one of Jesus’ main cardiologists and his heart transplant medical doctor. He ordered an echocardiogram for Jesus, which was done by Dr. Roy Jedeiken. His findings led to the diagnosis of cardiomyopathy, a rare heart condition that weakens the heart muscles and frequently results in heart failure. Unlike adults, children can’t tell you something is wrong and they may not have any symptoms. Their first symptom is often sudden death.
The team recommended a heart transplant – the best option for Jesus, and a great way to help children who have this degree of heart dysfunction. They decided to do it right away, to avoid a possible sudden death incident at home.
The Wait for a Heart
Jesus was put on the heart transplant list. The average wait time is two months, but Jesus was lucky because they were able to identify a very good donor within one week.
The team also needed to make sure Jesus’ immune system was just right - weakened enough so his body would not reject his new heart, but not suppressed so much that he could get a life-threatening infection. They got it just right.
The First Heart Transplant
A heart transplant surgery takes about four to six hours. Phoenix Children’s Hospital cardiothoracic surgeons Dr. John Nigro and Dr. Jeffrey Pearl performed the surgery together.
“The most important moment is when you attach the heart to this new body and the blood begins to flow into it and you wait for it to begin pumping,” said Dr. Pophal, recalling the surgery. “Jesus’ new heart starting pumping right away.”
Jesus made it through the transplant surgery beautifully. It went very smoothly and without a single glitch. Already, his skin color and breathing are much better and he looks like any active toddler.
It takes a collaborative, multidisciplinary team to make something like this happen, including pediatric specialists in:
- Cardiothoracic surgery
- Transplant coordination
- Cardiovascular intensive care
- Respiratory therapy
- Social Work
- Child Life
- And many more.
The recent affiliation with St. Joseph’s pediatric programs made the Phoenix Children’s Heart Center the fifth largest in the United States, and Phoenix Children’s was recently certified for heart transplants by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) . Phoenix Children’s Hospital also performs kidney transplants and bone marrow transplants. The Hospital is awaiting certification for liver transplants as well.
A Speedy Recovery
Just one day after the surgery, Jesus’ breathing tube was out and he was infused with a lot of medications to reduce the chance of having rejection. Jesus recovered quickly, surprising his family and our team with his resilience.
Jesus had a standard biopsy on his heart 13 days after his surgery to check his progress. The results: no signs of rejection!
Jesus went home 14 days after his heart transplant surgery.
A Long Road Ahead
Jesus is not out of the woods yet. Post-transplant care requires a lot more work by the family and the doctors. Dr. Pophal said, “All of his ongoing blood work, recurrent biopsies and surveillance for rejection is ahead of us. But he’s doing great. And we’ll follow him closely for the next few months to watch for signs of rejection.”
Thankful to have Their Toddler Back
Jesus' family is very grateful for the team of specialists who rallied around them to help their little boy and their family.
They are also grateful for the family that donated their child’s heart, who remains anonymous.
“Jesus is back to being a normal toddler, running around, fighting, pulling his sister’s hair, and eating all the time,” said his aunt, Mercedes Beltron. “We’ve thought a lot about organ donating too, and want people to know the importance of being a donor.”