A Hero's Heart: Toddler Thrives After Open-Heart Surgery

News 19's Ashley Izbicki got to meet Emily, the American Heart Association's Heart Hero this year, and hear her story about beating the odds.

(Pelion, SC) She’s a little girl with a big heart, and she’s proving not all heroes wear capes. Emily Windham, who had open-heart surgery at just 5-months-old, is inspiring other families and raising awareness for the organization that gave her a fighting chance at life.

Emily’s parents, Jane and Kevin Windham, weren’t expecting to hear the great news that they were pregnant in 2014.

“I had a great pregnancy. Everything went well, no problems. And as far as we knew, everything was fine,” said Jane Windham, Emily’s mom.

Windham gave birth to their beautiful baby girl three weeks early, in March of 2015.

“When I first looked in her little eyes I knew she had Down Syndrome,” said Windham.

Their little girl was moved to the special care nursery, and an echocardiogram confirmed she had a heart defect called Atrioventricular Septal Defect, a condition where there are holes between the chambers of the right and left sides of the heart, and the valves that control blood flow aren’t formed correctly.

"The symptoms can be similar to congestive heart failure. And surgery is necessary, usually before 6-months of age,” said Windham.

A week later, genetic testing confirmed Windham was right; Emily also had Down Syndrome.

“When we first brought her home we were either at the Pediatrician or Cardiologist, every week were seeing somebody,” said Windham.

Windham said the defect can cause high pressure in the lungs that, over time, can cause a lot of damage. At 5-months-old, she had open-heart surgery in Charleston. Windham and her husband, Kevin, were able to see her about 45 minutes after the procedure.

"When I saw her for the first time, she was pink. She had been very pale before surgery. And she was pink. And that was the first thing I noticed,” said Windham.

Emily also started gaining weight faster, and is continuing to surpass expectations.

“She's done well. She's on no medications, just a very slight leak in the valve on the right side and that's it. She's great,” said Windham.

After celebrating her birthday Monday, the Windhams said they’re enjoying being parents of a bubbly, bright-eyed 2-year-old, and looking forward to her future.

"Our hopes are that she will live a normal life with or without a disability,” said Kevin Windham. “And that other parents going through the same challenges will have the same opportunities.”

The Windhams said if they had not had the American Heart Association and its research, Emily would not have been able to have life-saving surgery.

“The American Heart Association does so much in the background that people do not understand or see or recognize,” said Kevin. “Giving to the American Heart Association helps in many different ways.”

Saturday, Emily and her parents will be at the Midlands Heart Walk, which raises money for the American Heart Association. Emily is this year’s “Heart Hero.” The Walk starts at Colonial Life Arena at 9 a.m.

© 2017 WLTX-TV


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