Jan 30, 2023, 11:11:44 AM CST Oct 10, 2023, 2:33:10 PM CDT

Millie's story: Expert heart care with a little help from a stuffed snowman

Learn how an innovative procedure and supportive care helped Millie overcome a heart problem and inspired her family to give back to Children's Health.

Little girl posing for a photo Little girl posing for a photo

At 8-years-old, Millie’s mom describes her as a force of nature. She's in her school's gifted and talented program, part of the student council and loves playing soccer and basketball. And every year, she and her mom find time in their busy schedules for a special tradition they use to honor the Children's Health℠ team that gave Millie such amazing heart care.

"We could tell that for Millie's doctors, caring for kids wasn't just a job but a true calling," says Millie’s mom Courtney. "We see it in every interaction with Children's Health. We wish Millie had never had a heart problem, but we're extremely proud and grateful to be a Children's family."

Compassionate doctors and a surprising diagnosis

Little girl posing for a pictureMillie's journey to Children's Health started at a routine 18-month-old well-child checkup. Her pediatrician heard a heart murmur, and sent them for further evaluation with Penn Laird, II, M.D., Pediatric Cardiologist with Pediatric Heart Specialists, a Children's Health Care Network Partner. After running several tests, Dr. Laird gently explained that Millie had an atrial septal defect (ASD), an 8-millimeter hole in her heart.

"We were shocked," Courtney says. "She didn't have any symptoms, she was meeting all of her milestones. So, seeing this heart diagram and looking at this playful little human — it was hard to connect the two."

The good news was that these holes often close on their own with time. After explaining the warning signs of complications to watch for, Dr. Laird told Courtney that Millie would probably live her life as usual as they monitored her ASD. Even if the hole didn't close, she likely wouldn't need surgery until she was at least 5.

"Having some guidance on how to monitor her meant we didn't have to jump straight to the extreme where we watch her like a hawk, wrap her in bubble wrap and don't let her run and play like a regular kid," Courtney says.

Every year before Millie's check-up, Courtney and her husband Aaron would pray that this would be the year the hole closed. And every year, Dr. Laird explained that while it hadn't gotten any bigger, it hadn't gotten any smaller either. When she turned 4, Dr. Laird said that if it didn't close in the next year, Millie would need surgery. They hoped for a miracle. But the hole didn't close, and Dr. Laird introduced them to Thomas Zellers, M.D., Interventional Cardiologist at Children's Health and Professor at UT Southwestern.

"Both doctors explained everything so clearly and supported us at every step. We knew that some families drive hours to get this type of care and expertise. Living in Plano, we were so lucky to have Children's Health right in our backyard," Courtney says.

Two options for heart surgery

There were two options for Millie's heart surgery: Minimally invasive surgery or open heart surgery. Millie was a potential candidate for a minimally invasive procedure called cardiac catheterization. In this procedure, a thin, flexible tube (called a catheter) is inserted through a tiny cut in the thigh and guided through a vein or artery to the heart to fix the hole.

The decision would depend on the scans of her heart on the day of Millie's surgery. If the scans showed that Millie had enough tissue surrounding the hole in her heart to keep the closure device in place, she could have minimally invasive surgery. If not, she would need open heart surgery, which requires cutting through the breastbone to access the heart. This procedure carries a higher risk of bleeding and scarring. Kids typically spend a few days in the intensive care unit recovering, another several days at the hospital and a month or more before going back to their normal activities.

Little girl holding Frozen movie toyOn the morning of the procedure, Millie's care team let her pick out a new stuffed animal to keep her company during the procedure. She chose Olaf, the snowman from Disney's Frozen.

Her care team took Millie for her heart scan, made sure her parents were set up to receive real-time text updates and pointed the family to the waiting room.

Each moment seemed to take forever. Then, they got the text they had hoped for. It had five words Courtney will never forget: Heading to the cath lab.

"The cath lab manager told us that in 40 years, she'd never seen a case like Millie's go for minimally invasive surgery. We were so happy," Courtney says.

In what felt like no time, Millie was waking up from her procedure and surrounded by her family and care team. She was quickly back to her normal self, asking when the service dogs would visit and if she could have bacon.

"We got the girl some bacon and I went to pick up our son from school," Courtney says. "Somehow it felt like a very normal day."

Celebrating expert heart care by giving back

Millie’s procedure was on a Friday. She was home Saturday morning, back at school Monday and playing soccer the next weekend. Ever since, her only follow up care is occasional checkups with Dr. Laird.

Little girl holding her medal while smilingNow 8, Millie doesn't remember much of her heart procedure, aside from having nice doctors and being a little nervous.

"Mostly I remember getting Olaf and that the dog came to see me after," Millie says.

Every year on January 31, Millie and Courtney have a special tradition that marks the day of her procedure: They pick out stuffed animals and bring them to Children's Health.

"I like donating toys because it can make other kids feel happy like I was when I got Olaf," Millie says.

"Olaf was able to be with Millie during her procedure, even when we couldn't," Courtney says. "It's our way of saying thank you to Children's Health. They have incredible professionalism and expertise. And even though they have so many patients, they make you feel like your child is the most important thing in the world."

Learn more

Ranked as one of the best cardiology programs in the country, Children's Health provides expert care for a wide range of heart conditions. Learn more about The Heart Center.

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