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February 8, 2015

The Heart of Emalee


The month of February, over the past few years, has taken on a more personal and sentimental role in my life as February is American Heart month.

On July 29, 2013 Congenital Heart Disease/Defect (CHD) hit close to home for me. Emalee Combs, my niece, was born with CHD. The news was shocking to my family as we all struggled with the diagnosis, especially since she was born with no immediate signs of any health concerns. I can recall my very first visit to the hospital to meet my new niece. After holding her for the first time I realized there was something special about this girl. I didn’t know at the time, but I would soon find out how right I was. It wasn’t until the discharge process when the nurse advised Katie, Emalee’s mother, that they would be discharging her but not discharging Emalee.

The pediatrician explained that Emalee was born with two holes in her heart (Atrial Septal Defect (ASD) and Ventricular Septal Defect (VSD)).

ASD is a hole in the wall (called the septum) that separates the left atrium and the right atrium. This wall is called the atrial septum. When this hole is present, it allows extra blood flow to travel from the left atrium into the right heart and out to the lungs. VSD is one of the most common congenital heart defects. It is a hole in the wall (septum) between the heart’s left and right ventricles. These can occur at different locations and vary in size from very small to very large. Some of the smaller defects may gradually close on its own.

Emalee would later be discharged following additional tests for her heart, but would have to see a cardiologist biweekly until otherwise cleared.  At 6 weeks, her condition began to deteriorate as her heart began to fail, causing her to become weak. She was then admitted into the hospital where it was determined she would require surgery to repair her heart.  Each day that passed was difficult on the whole family, especially on Emalee’s parents; my in laws Katie and Devon.

On October 14, 2013 Emalee underwent her first, and thus far her only, open heart surgery.  The expected 6 hour surgery became 9 long hours of pure anticipation.  After being discharged a week later, her post-op visit seemed to go well.  With continued prayers, each subsequent visit to the cardiologist became less frequent, although she continues to see her doctors annually for an EKG and Echocardiogram.  Both her pediatrician and cardiologist continue to monitor her for a rapid heart rate, signs of exhaustion, and heavy breathing.

FB_IMG_1423345195594Recovery from the surgery did not impact her from achieving the milestones most parents look forward to. Emalee is now 18 months old and if you ask this uncle, she is without question a fighter. The only sign of the obstacles she’s overcome is the super-hero scar or ‘zipper’ on her chest.  You’d never know the challenges she’s faced up to this point in her life as you stare into her big angelic blue eyes with her big smile. When her big brother Liam plays rough with her – she gives it back to him just as rough, as any sibling would.

Congenital heart disease affects 1 of every 100 children born each year from simple to very complex cases and is the most common birth defect.  CHD awareness week is February 7-14th – Please remember to wear red in honor of those who face the challenges of CHD. Mended Little Hearts is a support group for families that have been impacted by CHD. This group visit families in the hospital, facilitate meetings, raise fundraisers and throw parties for the children while working on awareness. The coordinator of the local Jacksonville, FL. chapter is Shannon Tumlin. You may contact her at mlhcoordintor@gmail.com. If you are outside of the Jacksonville, FL area then she can get you in contact with someone in your area.

For more information, review the following sites:




Written by Jason Bridges

About the Author

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