One August night, Pediatric Cardiothoracic Surgeon Tony Azakie, MD, sat in an operating room next to Gracie Wrobel, an 18-day-old infant.
Azakie and his team had just finished the first of three complex surgeries designed to reconfigure all the major blood vessels between Gracie’s lungs and heart. Gracie—now over four months old—was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a rare and life-threatening congenital heart defect that occurs when the left side of the heart fails to develop properly.
Instead of immediately delivering Gracie to the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit once the reconstruction was done—the typical course of action following heart surgery—Azakie kept watch on tiny Gracie for a few hours in operating room to make sure her vitals remained stable. Finally, when Gracie seemed to be recuperating well, Azakie and his team brought her out of the OR. He barely slept that night.
That kind of unwavering devotion is normal for Azakie.
“With every patient—whether it’s a small baby or an adult with a congenital disorder—I have the same philosophy,” he said. “I take the time in the operating room to ensure their postoperative course is smooth and hopefully free of complications.”
Azakie’s skill and concern for their daughter made an impression on Gracie’s parents, Courtney and Taylor Wrobel. A young couple from Big Lake, Minn., the Wrobels learned that their unborn daughter’s heart was not forming properly following a fetal echocardiogram 20 weeks into Courtney’s pregnancy.
“We were devastated. We thought that our daughter wasn’t going to live,” Courtney said. “Our world completely crashed.”
With the help of a team of doctors and nurses that included Azakie, Gracie underwent her first heart surgery—known as a Norwood procedure—when she was just days old. In early December, Azakie and his team successfully performed Gracie’s second surgery, the Glenn procedure. In 2017, Gracie will return to University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital for one more surgery: the Fontan procedure. Together, the three surgeries will effectively “rewire” Gracie’s heart and the surrounding blood vessels to bypass the left side of her heart.
Azakie is an expert on these relatively new and highly complex surgeries, having performed over 100 of them so far. He has developed an innovative technique for the Glenn procedure that that allowed him to complete Gracie’s second heart surgery—which took place in December 2016—without a cardiopulmonary bypass. The technique helped Gracie avoid postoperative complications and allowed her to return home with her family just five days after open-heart surgery.
Azakie is the only surgeon in Minnesota who has published research on this groundbreaking technique.
Though Azakie led Gracie’s surgical team, many other care providers contributed to the infant’s health and supported the family, according to Courtney.
“Without her team, her doctors and her surgeon, this would not be doable for our family,” Courtney said. “They are literally my backbone. I call them for anything and everything. They are always there. Their mentality is: We’re not just caring for Gracie, we’re caring for the whole family.”
Gracie will still need to take medication and schedule regular visits with her cardiologist after the Fontan procedure is complete. It is likely that she will experience lifelong complications stemming from her condition. But Courtney has complete confidence in Azakie and his team moving forward.“How can you possibly thank somebody who is giving your daughter a chance at life?” she asked. “We owe him so much. He has given us a chance to know our daughter.”