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18-month-old Cora is “unstoppable” after surgery to fix her congenital heart defect

Cora McPhillips was diagnosed at birth with tetralogy of Fallot with pulmonary atresia and major aortopulmonary collateral arteries (MAPCAs). To prepare for an extensive, one-stage surgery, our experts created and studied a 3D model of Cora’s heart.
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Jordan and Jenny McPhillips were looking forward to expanding their family. When a routine 24-week prenatal ultrasound suggested their baby might have a congenital heart defect, Jordan and Jenny chose M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital for their care, both during Jenny’s pregnancy and after the baby was born.

The Heart Center at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital brings together a multidisciplinary team including interventional cardiologists, fetal cardiologists, cardiac surgeons, as well as nurses, therapists, technicians, case managers, and many others. Together, these Heart Center experts work closely with a family to provide expert care during every stage of their journey.

Pediatric Cardiologist Matthew Ambrose, MD, carefully monitored Jenny’s baby throughout her pregnancy. Based on early ultrasound images, Ambrose and his team knew surgery would most likely be needed once the baby was born. So the McPhillips family also met with Pediatric Heart Surgeon Sameh Said, MD, FACS, during Jenny’s pregnancy.

“It’s important to establish a connection with the family early on and to develop a plan for each step,” Said stated. “This is just one way we partner with the families under our care to help them prepare.”

3D heart model guides innovative surgery

In August 2019, baby Cora was born – a few weeks ahead of schedule and weighing only five pounds. She stayed in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for about a month. After her birth, she was diagnosed with rare and severe congenital heart defect: tetralogy of Fallot with pulmonary atresia and major aortopulmonary collateral arteries (MAPCAs). Tetralogy of Fallot is a combination of four separate developmental abnormalities affecting the heart and surrounding blood vessels that causes low-oxygen blood to flow out to the body. It can cause bluish, discolored skin due to poor blood flow, dizziness, fainting, seizures, and delayed development, among other health issues.

In January 2020 – when Cora was five months old and weighed just nine pounds – she underwent surgery to fix her heart defect. Often, surgeons must conduct three or more separate surgeries to fix this form of tetralogy of Fallot due to the complexity of the condition. But Said, who led Cora’s surgery, is one of the nation’s top experts in this type of surgery.

Before Cora’s surgery, her surgical team created a 3D model of her heart. They studied the model to get a better understand of Cora’s unique heart anatomy, and then created a comprehensive surgical plan based on their findings. Doctors learned that Cora’s congenital heart defect was particularly challenging: Her heart and lungs had developed without any pulmonary arteries – the blood vessels that carry blood from the heart to the lungs where it gets oxygenated before going out to the body.

During a single, 16-hour surgery, Said and his team corrected several problems in the valves and blood vessels in and around Cora’s heart, and closed a hole between two of her heart chambers. The surgeons also created new pulmonary arteries for Cora by connecting all her MAPCAs together during a process called “unifocalization.” Finally, they built a new connection from the right ventricle of Cora heart to her newly created pulmonary arteries.

“Completing the process in a single surgery speaks volumes about our program and the challenges we can overcome by combining everyone’s efforts,” Said stated.

Ambrose agrees. “Cora has an uncommon, major heart problem that required highly skilled care before surgery but also a surgeon with the technical skill to repair it,” he said. “Dr. Said performed the procedure so successfully that Cora hasn’t needed any intervention after surgery – she is doing great.

“Here, we have seamless access to all of these tremendously talented members of the team, and the approach is very team-oriented,” Ambrose said. “We have all of these people in one building, working together.”

After surgery, Cora is “unstoppable”

In January 2021, the McPhillips family celebrated the one-year anniversary of her surgery. Cora’s team at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital will continue to monitor her closely as she grows. Sometime within the next few years, she’ll need another surgery to replace a faulty valve. But for now, Cora is a happy baby who loves music and dancing. Although she has had some developmental delays, she is catching up fast; she is just about to take her first steps.

The McPhillips family is grateful to the team for Cora’s fantastic progress.

“We felt comfortable with M Health Fairview, and we are so glad that we went with that feeling,” Jenny said. “Dr. Ambrose is a wonderful fetal cardiologist. He fights for us like nobody’s business, and he really cares for Cora. Dr. Said is the kindest man we’ve ever met. He checked on Cora two times a day, every day. He’s an amazing surgeon and so reassuring. Thanks to their care, Cora is doing just great. She’s unstoppable.”


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