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A Feeble Heart, but a Sturdy Partner

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."

By the time of E.J.'s third surgery the following February, when doctors replaced the faulty mitral valve with an artificial one, "it had plunged to about 50-50," Eric said.

E.J. went home from his third stay at Children's on his first birthday.

At that point, he faced more challenges. As a child who spent most of his first 12 months fighting for life, he'd never picked up a block, never crawled.

Pediatric occupational therapists took over, and he raced through the developmental stages.

Today, E.J. faces a lifetime on blood thinners, and Hope faces the worry that the medication might cause internal bleeding in the rough and tumble of boyhood.

"He's pretty rambunctious," she said. "And he's going to have to live his life. I want it to be as much like any typical child's as possible."

E.J. looked up from his coloring book, waved a crayon and demanded that Mom stop talking to a reporter. "Mama color, too!" he insisted.

E.J. probably hasn't seen the last of Children's Hospital. Doctors have told the Davises that he'll face at least one more surgery to replace his artificial mitral valve with a larger one as he grows.

"We're so blessed that we live in an area with access to Children's Hospital," Hope said.

How to Help

To donate, send a check or money order payable to Children's Hospital to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390. That's the post office box of our bank. All funds go to Children's Hospital in Washington.

To contribute by phone using Visa or MasterCard, call 202-334-5100 and follow the instructions.

All gifts are tax-deductible as allowed by law and will support the hospital's policy of providing treatment for all, regardless of ability to pay. We hope to raise $500,000 by Jan. 18.

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