Lainey Wilkinson doesn't know it yet, but one day she'll learn that the entire staff at Children's Hospital and Medical Center was just waiting for someone like her to be born.
Lainey became the first infant to receive a heart transplant at Children's on April 8, two weeks after her birth there. The little girl from Council Bluffs is now doing so well that she is expected to be released in the next week or two.
“I'm bursting at the seams when I talk about her,” said Dr. James Hammel, a cardiothoracic surgeon. “This whole case couldn't have been a more storybook case for Children's. From beginning to end Lainey has been able to take advantage of all these programs we've been building for her and children like her.”
At a press conference Sunday, Hammel said Children's transplant program had progressed for several years toward being able to perform a heart transplant on an infant. The hospital received interim approval in early March to conduct transplants.
Lainey's parents, Jeff and Jessica Wilkinson, learned five months into the pregnancy that the baby had a severely defective heart. Neither the left nor right side of Lainey's heart was able to pump blood. Doctors determined that the organ couldn't be surgically repaired.
The baby was listed for transplant on March 29, one week after her full-term delivery in Children's fetal care center.
Jessica Wilkinson said she tried not to think too far ahead because of “all those things” that could go wrong.
“Talking to the team about a heart transplant wasn't as devastating as we thought it might be,” she said. “We knew it was a possibility, but we had confidence in the (surgical) team.”
Children's is the only hospital in Nebraska, South Dakota or western Iowa to offer infant and pediatric heart transplants.
When a heart donor became available, Lainey's surgical team began preparing her for transplant while a tiny heart was being flown to Omaha.
Hammel said Lainey was in the operating room about eight or nine hours. The operation took between four and five hours, he said.
“We're all working furiously at that time, because we're working to limit the time that there isn't any blood flow,” Hammel said. “Then comes the moment when the clamps are removed and blood begins flowing into the heart . . . I know I get a little secret pleasure it starts beating. I was thinking, 'Look at that happy little heart.' ”
Dr. Robert Spicer, director of heart transplantation at Children's, said the surgery couldn't have been performed without another family recognizing that their child's tragedy could have a silver lining.
“Every time I listen to Lainey's heart beat, I am listening to someone else who will live on through her,” Spicer said.
Spicer said Lainey has been steadily progressing. Born at 6 pounds, 3 ounces, she lost weight before the operation but now weighs more than 7 pounds and is growing fast.
Lainey's heart will grow right along with her. It's hard to say how long the heart will serve the girl, Spicer said, because the first infant transplant occurred only 30 years ago.
“If she would need a second transplant, the results are quite good,” he said. “She should be able to lead a normal life.”
Because the heart is a transplant, Lainey will be on anti-rejection medications. The Wilkinsons, who also have a 3-year-old son, know their daughter will be more susceptible to infections. But they finally are able to exhale with some relief.
“It's been kind of a lot to take in,” Jeff Wilkinson said. “We're just starting to be able to relax a little, but we couldn't be happier.”
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