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Bright Futures

Articles and Updates from Phoenix Children's

February 04, 2022
A Life-Saving Heart Surgery and the Love of Her Forever Family
Noelle’s Story: A Life-Saving Heart Surgery and the Love of Her Forever Family

There are moments in everyone’s life that can be challenging — that test our strength and resiliency.

In just two short years of life, Noelle has proven she can handle anything that comes her way. The bright, courageous girl spent the holidays at home this year alongside her five siblings and parents Kathleen and Darren — a happy ending that was anything but guaranteed.

Journey from Foster Care to a Forever Family

Born into foster care in December 2019, just days after Christmas, Noelle’s fight to live began. She was born with six different congenital heart defects – each one scarier than the last – and a host of other health conditions requiring highly specialized care.

Shortly after she was born, Noelle was admitted to a local neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) where she would need care for months. It was during this time that Kathleen and Darren got the call that there was a newborn who needed a foster family who could care for a medically fragile child. They immediately said, “Yes.”

Kathleen, a former special education teacher and long-time NICU volunteer at a local hospital, was no stranger to newborns and children with very specialized needs. Her work in this field inspired her and her husband to seek licensure as foster parents for medically fragile children. “We have to do something to help these babies,” Kathleen recalled saying to her husband Darren.

Kathleen and Darren already had four grown children – Zach, Cory, Mikayla and Dylan – but they knew they had more love to give and a home to share. From 2013-2020, the family fostered 23 children – most of whom were medically fragile. They adopted two of these children: Kayden, age 6, was adopted in 2016. Last year, he got a little sister when Kathleen and Darren adopted Noelle.

A Life-Saving Open Heart Surgery

Noelle’s heart conditions were so severe, her life was constantly at risk. Kathleen and Darren knew her heart could stop at any moment.

During her time in the NICU, Noelle underwent two open-heart surgeries that unfortunately did not fully repair her condition. After going home with her foster parents, she also had a gastronomy tube placed and received a balloon pulmonary angioplasty. Yet she still wasn’t thriving and was deemed too high risk for another open-heart procedure.  Kathleen connected with the Phoenix Children’s Heart Center and Dr. Daniel A. Velez, division chief of cardiothoracic surgery and co-director of the Phoenix Children’s Heart Center, to have Noelle evaluated. Following that consultation, her care was transferred to Phoenix Children’s. 

Dr. Velez said Noelle would need a third open-heart surgery to correct her congenital and post-operative heart conditions. Dr. Velez had performed many such surgeries, so Kathleen and Darren felt reassured Noelle’s heart was in the right place with an experienced team.

Noelle’s Story: A Life-Saving Heart Surgery and the Love of Her Forever Family

In November 2021, after 10 long hours in the operating room and thanks to the surgical team’s persistence and expertise, Noelle’s surgery was a success. She underwent a complete repair and it was found that her aorta was enlarged, thin and as delicate as tinfoil. While there were several touch-and-go moments during the difficult procedure, Noelle came through beautifully. Her family, Dr. Velez and the Heart Center team say she is quite literally a miracle.

Although Noelle will require life-long care to monitor her heart and health, she is home and thriving. Kathleen said her daughter now has a bright future ahead of her.

“I just hope she grows up and becomes whatever she wants to be,” Kathleen said. “Hopefully, Noelle helps others in her career and in the future. She has said she wants to be a nurse someday.”

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