Jimmy Kimmel's voice cracked as he talked about the “terrifying” moments after his son's birth, when doctors discovered the newborn had a heart defect and needed immediate surgery.
“They found that Billy was born with, um, a heart disease,” Kimmel said through tears Monday night on his late-night ABC show. “Uh … something called Tetralogy of Fallot with pulmonary atresia.”
“It's hard to explain,” he said. “Basically, the pulmonary valve was completely blocked. And he has a hole in the wall between the left and right sides of his heart.”
The “Jimmy Kimmel Live” host had opened his show on a very serious note, telling the studio audience and viewers at home: “I have a story to tell about something that happened to our family last week.” He started to get choked up immediately and then apologized, saying: “I’m sorry. You know, I try not to get emotional, but it was a scary story. And before I go into it, I want you to know it has a happy ending, okay? So when I’m telling this, don’t get too upset. Leave that to me.”
Kimmel went on to say that his wife, Molly, gave birth to their second child on April 21, a boy named Billy. Everything seemed normal at first, until a few hours later, when a nurse discovered that he had a heart murmur and noticed his skin was a bit purple. Kimmel described the terror of watching a group of very worried-looking doctors and nurses try to figure out what was wrong with his newborn son. Eventually, they told him that Billy was born with a heart disease and would immediately require surgery.
Kimmel went public with his personal at a time when House Republicans are debating whether to scale back Obamacare's preexisting conditions clause.
“Before 2014, if you were born with congenital heart disease like my son was, there was a good chance you would never be able to get health insurance because you had a preexisting condition,” Kimmel said during his show. “You were born with a preexisting condition, and if your parents didn’t have medical insurance, you might not even live long enough to get denied because of a preexisting condition.”
Tetralogy of Fallot is a rare congenital heart condition characterized by four main problems, including a hole in the wall between the lower chambers of the heart, changing the normal blood flow to the body, according to the American Heart Association. The National Institutes of Health says the condition occurs in about five out of every 10,000 babies.
The condition includes pulmonary valve stenosis, in which the pulmonary valve is constricted, which then restricts blood flow to the lungs; overriding aorta, in which the aorta is mispositioned; right ventricular hypertrophy, which causes the right ventricle's muscular wall to thicken; and ventricular septal defect, characterized by the hole between the lower chambers, according to the Mayo Clinic.
On Monday night, Mehmet Oz, a heart surgeon who was already scheduled to appear on Kimmel's show, explained more about the heart defect affecting the newborn.
Oz showed an animation of a human heart in which a wall separates the two lower chambers. “When that wall is missing, because that muscle between the two main chambers is not formed, but because of that, these tubes — the blue tube takes dirty blood to the lungs, the red tube takes clean blood to your brain and everywhere else — they no longer can discriminate between what blood is coming into them,” he said.
When the dirty blood mixes with the clean blood, Oz said, the baby can turn blue.
And that's exactly what happened in the moments after Kimmel's son was born.
“He appeared to be a normal, healthy baby until about three hours after he was born,” Kimmel said of Billy. “We were out of the delivery room; we moved to the recovery room. Our whole family was there. We introduced him to his 2½-year-old sister. She was cute with him. We were happy; everything was good. My wife was in bed relaxing, when a very attentive nurse … was checking him out and heard a murmur in his heart, which is common with newborn babies. But she also noticed he was a bit purple, which is not common. My wife and I assumed it would be nothing; our daughter had a heart murmur, too.
But Kimmel said doctors and nurses soon started trickling into the hospital room. “They determined he wasn't getting enough oxygen into his blood,” he said of the doctors. “They did an X-ray and determined his lungs were fine, which meant his heart wasn't.”
The newborn was taken by ambulance to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, where he underwent open-heart surgery to repair “one of the two defects in his heart,” Kimmel said.
Kimmel said the surgeon “did some kind of magic I couldn't even begin to explain.”
“The operation was a success. It was the longest three hours of my life, but it was a success,” he said, as the crowd clapped and cheered. “They didn't do everything; he'll have to have another open-heart surgery in three to six months to close those holes, but they wanted to wait until he's bigger. And then he'll have a third, hopefully noninvasive procedure, sometime maybe in his early teens, to replace the valve he has now.”
Kimmel then showed viewers several pictures of the newborn, immediately launching back into his jokes.
“Poor kid: Not only did he get a bad heart, he got my face,” he said.
“This is the best,” Kimmel said about a photo of him and his son sleeping. “It's me in a coma.”
Kimmel said he and his wife were able to bring their son home six days after surgery. “He's doing great,” he said. “He's eating, he's sleeping — he peed on his mother today while she was changing his diaper. He's doing all the things that he is supposed to do.”
Monday's show also featured superstar snowboarder Shaun White, who told Kimmel that he, too, was born with Tetralogy of Fallot.
“When we were told that this operation was going to be happening,” Kimmel said, “everyone said, 'Shaun White had this. Shaun White had this.' So then I thought, 'Oh no, my son's going to be a snowboarder.'”
Kimmel asked White, who is training for the 2018 Olympics, whether he had had any limitations as a result of his heart defect.
“My parents are the ones that really made me who I am,” White replied. “Obviously, they didn't put these limitations on me. … They really let me find my own limitations.”
Kimmel said it gave him hope for his own son's future.
“I have to say,” he said, “it makes me believe that my son, too, is going to win Olympic gold medals for the United States of America.”
This post has been updated.