This afternoon, 3-month-old Olivia Solis, daughter to Dallas ISD trustee Miguel Solis and his wife Jacqueline Nortman, is undergoing surgery to close her chest. On Monday evening, Olivia was wheeled into a surgical suite at Children’s Medical Center for a heart transplant, an incredibly rare procedure for a child her age. Minutes after midnight on Tuesday, her new heart began beating inside her chest.
“The transplant was a big day,” Miguel says. “It was one where it could have easily been her last day or the start of a new life. And luckily she came out of the surgery stable. Hopefully, she’ll have her chest closed and there won’t be any issues. It’s a long journey forward.”
Children’s is one of just two transplant centers in the state that offer the procedure for patients as young as Olivia; the other is Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. Olivia is one of three Texas children one year of age or younger who has had a heart transplant this year. Last year, Children’s did seven and Texas Children’s performed five, according to the United Network of Organ Sharing, which tracks transplant data throughout the country. The procedure has a one-year survival rate of 87.4 percent, which dips to 83.9 percent after three years, and 75 percent after five.
Olivia’s situation was dire. She was diagnosed with a critical congenital heart defect days after her birth. Home has been the hospital; much of that time has been spent in intensive care. Her parents always sleep in her room. She was placed on the transplant list almost immediately, and the doctors guessed right when they told Solis and Nortman the average time for a heart to arrive: three months.
“We’re lucky we caught it,” Solis says, speaking of the heart defect. “We could’ve taken her home and she could’ve passed away there.”
Olivia’s new heart came from a baby that was a little older. It’s larger than her old heart, so doctors opted to keep her chest open to allow it to settle into its new home. If all goes according to plan, her chest will be closed by this afternoon and she can begin recovering. The heart came from somewhere within 1,000 miles—patient privacy laws bar recipient and donor families from knowing each other until much later, and both parties must agree.
Olivia was designated as a 1A patient on the national transplant waiting list, the most in need of a new heart. These patients are then prioritized by the amount of time spent on the list. Donor hearts, especially for children, have grown increasingly difficult to come by. According to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, there are more than 2,000 children on the national transplant list, and yet, in 2016, there were only 934 pediatric organ donors. Most of those were between ages 11 and 17—only 135 were younger than a year old.
There are a few reasons for this, but, mostly, it’s safer to be a child these days. Since 1975, motor vehicle deaths nationally among children younger than 13 has been just about cut in half—1,384 in 1975 compared to 723 in 2016. In infants, sudden unexpected infant death rates have declined from 154.6 deaths per 100,000 births to 92.6 deaths in 2015. It’s morbid, but these are where the hearts for patients like Olivia typically come from.
“Olivia is only here today because of the selfless act of a family who in their darkest day decided to breathe life into my child and give her a second chance at life,” Solis says. “The power of that is just indescribable.”
So while Olivia’s parents knew a heart could arrive any day, they also knew those stats. When the hospital’s coordinator broke the news Monday morning, it came as a surprise. Surgeons with Children’s had boarded a plane alongside coordinators with the Southwest Transplant Alliance, which is one of 58 Organ Procurement Organizations that organize the nation’s transplants—they monitor the list, contact hospitals for recipients, organize flights, and aid in the procurement process. They also get approval from families who wish to donate their loved one’s organs.
The heart only has an ischemic time—how long it can survive without blood—of about four hours out of the body until its cells begin to die. Surgeons must move quickly. After being wheeled into the operating room, Olivia’s heart was stopped and she was placed on a heart-lung bypass machine. After Children’s surgeons OK’d the heart and made sure it matched Olivia’s A blood type, doctors in Dallas made the first incision into her chest. By the time the new heart arrived in Dallas, it was ready to be sewn in. Dr. Robert Jaquiss, Children’s Health’s director of cardiothoracic surgery, performed the procedure.
“We talk about Dallas being world class, you know, we throw that phrase around here pretty liberally and I’m guilty of that myself,” Solis says. “But in this case, world class science is being done at this hospital and more people should know about it.”
Solis and Nortman have opened up about their daughter’s story in order to spread awareness. They want families to be aware of the impact of organ donation. They want people to understand the impact of volunteers at Children’s—often, parents must return to work to keep their insurance and leave their sick kid in the hospital. Sometimes, they don’t live in North Texas. Volunteers spend time holding babies, providing them with human interaction beyond that of the doctor and the nurses.
Olivia’s parents believe she is strong enough to carry those stories—she has already proven she’s strong enough to live for months with her weak heart, long enough to give her a rare fighting chance.
For more information on volunteering at Children’s, head here. If you wish to make a donation to the hospital, specify that it is in Olivia’s name or that you wish it be sent to the cardiothoracic department at this link.