His smile is contagious, and he uses it every time he catches a glimpse of another person’s face. He wriggles around constantly in his mother’s arms while she tells me about him. Every time he meets my eye-there it is again-that smile seems to take over his whole tiny body.
He’s one years old, as of this week, and he has undergone what most people never do even in their old age: two open heart surgeries, a heart attack, and months of time clocked lying in a hospital room. As he cheerfully wriggles, his mother calmly points out his feeding tube (he gets a hold of it and starts to chew the loose end), the “battle scars” on his chest, and his little webbed fingers and toes—six on each hand and foot.
The boy is a true wonder, a wonder that dozens of people have worked to keep alive for this miracle of a year.
He was born with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome. This condition affects just 1 in 4,344 babies in the US each year, and until recently, was almost always fatal. Even today, survival rates hover around 50-60%, and that’s only if an infant receives the recommended series of three reconstructive surgeries that were finally invented in the late 80s.
HLHS is basically an underdeveloped left side of the heart, and it begins during development in the womb. Without this defect, the right side of the heart pumps oxygen-poor blood from the heart to the lungs, while the left side of the heart pumps oxygen-rich blood to the rest of the body.
When a baby is born, it usually takes a few days for special fetal openings in the heart to close so that the heart begins to function normally. With HLHS, the closing of those special valves is what begins to kill the baby, as the left side of the heart is not able to take up the slack and start working the way it’s supposed to.
This is why Bradley was 4 days old before he first turned blue.
Jennifer Woodard and her husband Blake were driving the baby to the doctor’s office to have a follow up, because doctors had told them that they’d heard a heart mummer and would need to check it out.
“My husband was driving and I was in the back with him, trying to breastfeed,” said Jennifer. “I’d sent my mom to Walmart to get some formula because I thought maybe he’s not getting enough. He’d stopped eating the night before. That’s one of the signs; they basically can either eat or breathe, so they stop eating.
“They tell you that his temperature needs to be at a certain level, and his temperature wouldn’t get above like 97, so I called the pediatrician in the car just to let them know. And that’s when he started having trouble breathing, and they actually heard him on the phone.
“I was telling her about how we had the heat on high, and all these blankets, and I can’t get his temperature up. So she said ‘I want you to recheck it.’ And I said ‘we’re on our way.’ And that’s when he started gasping for air, and she heard him, and she said, ‘is that him breathing?’ And I said yes. She said ‘you need to get him to the ER now.’
“We were actually passing through Hartsville, and I worked at that hospital for eight years, so I knew they didn’t have the equipment to deal with a newborn. So we bypassed it and went to Sumner, where he was born.”
When they got to Sumner Regional Medical Center in Gallatin, the baby immediately started something called retractions, said Jennifer, “where their chest sinks in, and you can see their ribs.” The doctor who happened to be on call that night might have saved Bradley’s life: “If he hadn’t been there, I don’t know… because he knew.”
The doctor said he thought that the valve was closing, and that that his heart was not functioning properly to pick up the slack. The medicine they gave Bradley tricked his body into thinking that it was back in the womb; this bought them time to fly him to Vanderbilt Medical Center, and to get him onto a ventilator.
Only at Vanderbilt did Jennifer learn exactly what was wrong with her baby. “The team came in at the ER,” she said, “and drew me a picture of his heart, and said they thought that was what it was.”
Three days later, he had his first open heart surgery. He was seven days old.
It took him months to recover. These months were full of driving for Jennifer, as she commuted between Lafayette and the Vanderbilt NIC Unit, and full of struggle and discomfort for Bradley.
When he finally got strong enough—it was a dangerous few months—doctors decided he was ready for the second of the three operations. Bradley, who was born January 20 of 2012, had his second surgery in May.
His heart attack occurred in June. He developed a blood clot in his coronary artery, and Jennifer received a call (she was at a funeral) saying that there was a blockage and he was being moved back to the fifth floor of the NICU. “They did a heart cath and then started him on medicine to break up the clots,” said Jennifer. “They did two rounds of that… I didn’t find out till later that it was a heart attack; someone else was looking at his chart and told me accidentally.”
The Bradley Fund had been set up after the first heart surgery, to help pay for the gas and food expenses, and to pay for some of the medicines that insurance doesn’t cover. “I just put it in a fund for him and use it for him,” said Jennifer. “He’s got an account set up at Macon Bank & Trust, and there’s a donation set up.” The family has been selling gray Bradley T-shirts as well.
Bradley’s other diagnoses include severe acid reflux (he had to undergo a procedure where they tied up the bottom part of the esophagus and top part of his stomach), hydronephrosis (water on the kidneys; antibiotics are clearing that up), trouble swallowing (part of the reason for the feeding tube), and syndactyly and polydactyly of toes and fingers (this is the webbing and the extra digit; actually just a genetic thing and unrelated to the heart disease). A home-health aide comes to the house three times a week to help with Bradley—and since Jennifer is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Nursing, she can use all the time she gets.
Bradley is waiting for his third and final open-heart surgery, which should be in September of this year. As he goes on into adulthood, his lifestyle may grow increasingly normal, although he will not be able to do things like drink caffeine or play contact sports. There is also some chance that he will still need a heart transplant later in life.
“But that,” said Jennifer brightly, “is a bridge we’ll just cross when we come to it, right Bradley?”
In the meantime, the Woodard family, now blessed with a total of four children ranging in age from 16 to 1, will be able to simply enjoy this little guy.