A Feeble Heart, but a Sturdy Partner

Eric and Hope Davis with son E.J., 2, who needed heart surgery shortly after birth.
Eric and Hope Davis with son E.J., 2, who needed heart surgery shortly after birth. (By Alice Reid For The Washington Post)

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By Alice Reid
Monday, December 3, 2007

The first sign of trouble for little E.J. Davis came when he was still in his mom's womb. Hope Davis was six months into her first pregnancy when she went for a routine sonogram at Washington Hospital Center.

That was the day routine went out the window. Radiologists didn't like what they saw, and soon Hope was at Children's Hospital, where doctors could take a closer look at the developing heart through a fetal echocardiogram.

The diagnosis was shattering for Hope and husband Eric. Their first baby would come into the world with a heart that had two holes inside and would almost certainly fail him before his first birthday. Only complex early heart surgery could save him, and even then his survival would be anything but assured.

"When you have your first child, you say, 'I don't care if it's a boy or a girl. I just want my child to be healthy,' " Hope said. "Then you realize, 'Maybe I'm not going to have a healthy child.' You're really just sort of in shock. You go home. You cry. You pray. You pray that maybe they're wrong!"

The Davises, who live in Upper Marlboro, began what has become an intimate connection with Children's. When E.J. was born March 1, 2005, a Children's neonatologist was there to examine him. Then, less than three months later, as doctors had predicted, E.J. ceased to grow. It was time to head back to Children's for surgery that Hope and Eric prayed would save their son's life. Ultimately, surgery did save E.J.'s life, but not before he'd spent most of his first year in the hospital.

More than 500 cardiac surgeries are performed at Children's every year. About two-thirds are on babies as small as E.J. was. The first surgery, a repair of faulty valves in E.J.'s heart, went well, and the family headed home after a week.

But three days later they were racing back to the emergency room.

E.J. had been crying uncontrollably. "We just couldn't comfort him, and it seemed like he was having trouble breathing," Hope said.

The problem: endocarditis, a serious inflammation inside the heart.

"The doctors weren't sanguine," Hope said. They fought to get the infection under control for weeks, and E.J. spent most of his time in the intensive-care unit.

Doctors performed a second surgery that summer, trying to straighten a balky valve. They could only do so much, and the Davises were warned they'd be back. Eric remembers how every time doctors assessed E.J.'s chances, the odds moved in the wrong direction.

"It tested your faith," he said. "The doctor would give the percentage of having your son survive. For the first surgery, it was 70 percent."

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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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