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A heart-warming tale

Watching Samaa giggle and wriggle on her father’s lap, it’s hard to imagine her as anything but healthy. But, just 15 months previously, Samaa needed life-saving surgery for an extremely rare congenital heart condition, and the only way doctors could operate was by chilling her body to the point where her blood stopped flowing.

Photo of Samaa and her dad
Samaa with her dad
Samaa was born with total anomalous pulmonary venous return (TAPVC), a condition where oxygenated blood returns from the lungs to the right side of the heart instead of the left. What’s more, her blood vessels were twisted at the point of connection, meaning blood was obstructed from reaching her heart. Without an operation, her condition was fatal.

Samaa’s parents saw their GP and A&E staff numerous times before an emergency nurse at University College London Hospital finally picked up the severity of the problem and Samaa was referred to Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH).

"Regardless of how advanced we are technologically, a mother’s intuition still goes a long way," said Samaa’s dad. "One of your biggest worries as a parent is catching your child’s problem early enough. Once we arrived at GOSH, we knew we had. The care we received here was second-to-none."

The operation

Consultant Cardiothoracic Surgeon Dr Tain-Yen Hsia explained that they would need to lower Samaa’s core body temperature to a chilling 18 degrees centigrade using a technique known as hypothermic circulatory arrest. They would then turn off the bypass machine to stop the heart and blood flow while they worked, giving them a 45-minute window to repair her blood vessels before Samaa risked permanent brain damage.

"I’ll always remember taking Samaa to be given her anaesthetic," said her dad. "As I put her down on the table, she looked up and gave me a little smile. That was the last thing she did for us before the operation – smile."

The waiting game

Samaa’s parents endured an agonising wait of more than eight hours while she was in theatre, but her dad still vividly remembers talking to Dr Tain-Yen Hsia afterwards. "It was about 10.30pm, and we knew that he had carried out another procedure before Samaa. I realised that would be the last time I ever complained about being tired after work."

The road to recovery

Samaa spent another 10 days at GOSH while she recovered. Luckily, her dad was able to stay locally, but having to juggle caring for their elder child too did prove a challenge at times. "GOSH provides an amazing service for people in our position. The staff really did take care of us like we were part of a family – we developed a really special bond."

Homeward bound

Samaa on her 1st birthday
Samaa on her 1st birthday
Samaa’s father also remembers how their relief that Samaa was ready to return home was tempered with anxiety. "We were really apprehensive about how we would look after her. At the hospital, we had the comfort of knowing the doctors were on hand. I kept trying to persuade the nurses to come and help us at home."

Thankfully, they needn’t have worried. Within a month of being discharged, Samaa was growing and behaving like any other baby. "She’s absolutely perfect in every way," her dad says. "Don’t get me wrong – she and her sister can run riot at times, but just having her at home and seeing her smile makes us so happy every day."

Ongoing care

Today, Samaa’s back at GOSH for a routine check-up, and it’s likely she’ll need monitoring for the rest of her life. "We know she’s in the best place possible," said her dad. "We went through absolute turmoil, but we’ll never forget the way people looked after us. My wife still breaks down in tears sometimes when she thinks about it.

"Footballers might get paid astronomical amounts of money, but it’s the staff at GOSH who are proper rockstars."

Case notes

Dr Tain-Yen Hsia explains the procedure he performed on Samaa: "Hypothermic circulatory arrest isn’t a new procedure, but it’s not often used. Like many medical breakthroughs, the technique actually came from a non-clinical experience – in this case, observing how people managed to survive in icy water.

"There’s no scientific data to show exactly how much time we had to operate on Samaa, but as surgeons, we are trained to deal with pressurised situations. I certainly didn’t feel anxious but I do have a healthy dose of respect for all the operations I perform.

"No matter how complex the procedure, it’s a real privilege to be able to offer our patients and their families the chance of a good quality of life. GOSH is a very special place to me – working here is both exciting and challenging, and that’s why I love what I do."
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