Northeast Mississippi kids benefit from in-state program

By Michaela Gibson Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

Bryon Pounders and Georgia Grace Thurlow were born with broken hearts.
The Golden toddler and the Starkville tween are thriving, growing children because of advances in pediatric heart surgery.
Before April 2010, getting treatment for their congenital heart defects would have sent them across the country for specialized surgery.
A new robust congenital surgery program at the Blair E. Batson Children’s Hospital at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson has given them new options. In a year and a half, the heart program has completed about 400 surgical cases with a 98 percent success rate, said congenital heart surgeon Dr. Jorge Salazar, who was recruited from Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston to restart the program. The national average is about 95 percent. The hospital also resumed pediatric heart transplants last month.
“We’re already one of the larger programs in the country,” Salazar said. “We’re thrilled to be able to offer the highest standard of care in our own state.”
The program uses a team concept to care for the children, many of whom have complex heart defects. It’s about more than just the surgeon and the operating room team, Salazar said. The care patients get before and after surgery is just as crucial to achieving good outcomes. It’s a long-term commitment because many of the children will need follow-up care for the rest of their lives.
“Each team member is really critical,” Salazar said. “Every single link has to be strong.”
The program has added a second heart surgeon and pediatric intensivist, but the nurses, therapists and technicians are all from Mississippi.
“Mississippi already had excellent clinicians,” Salazar said. “We started the program with people who are already here.”
Having a program close to home with highly regarded staff delivers peace of mind for families of children with congenital heart defects.
“They need to know it’s not scary; maybe a little at first,” said Georgia Grace Thurlow, 10, who had her third open heart surgery this summer. “But when you have good doctors, good surgeons and good nurses, you know it’s going to be all right.”
Bryon Pounders
The Pounders family had plenty of blessings to count this Thanksgiving on behalf of 14-month-old Bryon.
Bryon was born with multiple heart defects and has been through four surgeries, including three open heart procedures, in his short life.
“Now he’s singing, and trying to walk,” said mom Nanette Pounders.
This year, Bryon will get to open presents under his own tree with Mom, dad Byron, and siblings DJ, 18; Lacey, 15; and Haven, 2.
“Last year, we had Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years in the hospital,” Nanette Pounders said.
The journey for the Pounders family began before Bryon was even born. A routine sonogram revealed something was wrong with the baby’s heart, and Nanette was referred to specialists in Jackson for further evaluation.
By design, she delivered at University of Mississippi Medical Center, so Bryon could get care for the heart defects immediately.
Instead of having a pulmonary artery – which takes blood to the lungs to get oxygen, and an aorta – which takes oxygen-rich blood to the rest of the body, Bryon was born with one vessel that combined the two. That meant too much blood was going to his lungs, and not enough blood was getting out to the rest of his body. The arteries were also narrowed.
“Within a week to 10 days, he would have been very sick,” Pounders said.
The first surgery when Bryon was 8 days old repaired the anatomy of his heart, although the artificial conduit will have to be replaced as he grows. A second surgery added a pacemaker.
A third defect, Shone’s Syndrome, which affects the heart’s valves, didn’t become apparent immediately and is very unusual to have in combination with the other defects. The third surgery replaced the mitral valve affected by Shone’s.
“Dr. Salazar said it was like getting hit by lightning,” Nanette Pounders said of the odds.
Bryon needed a fourth surgery to help his digestive tract work more efficiently.
Juggling a large family during all those surgeries wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t as hard as it could have been if Bryon had needed surgery at a center across the country.
During those long months, Nanette Pounders stayed with Bryon in Jackson; daughter Lacey spent most of that period in Jackson, too, so her mom could continue her homeschooling studies. Dad Byron, who had to return to work, came every weekend. Family helped care for Haven, who came to visit frequently. Oldest brother DJ, who works in Louisiana, visited as he could.
“We had to do what we had to do,” Pounders said.
When Byron came home in January he was not quite 9 pounds; now he’s 19 pounds and healthy. He’ll likely need another surgery between the ages of 4 and 7, but he’ll be watched closely as he grows.
“With heart babies, nothing’s written in stone,” Pounders said.
Georgia Grace
There’s nothing about Georgia Grace that would suggest she has a heart defect. She loves art, bikes and horseback riding.
“I’ve just been a regular kid,” she said.
And that is a miracle all by itself, said her parents Bill and Mel Thurlow.
Nearly 11 years ago, the Thurlow family of Starkville didn’t have advanced warning of a heart defect when Georgia Grace came into the world.
Mom remembers how disappointed she was that after a long, fruitless labor, she ended up having a Caesarean section because Georgia Grace was breech.
“Little did we know that it saved her life,” Mel Thurlow said, because with Georgia Grace’s defect, she probably would not have been able to handle the stress. “That was the first miracle.”
At her 5-day check up, the doctor identified a heart murmur and sent the family to Jackson for a consult with a pediatric cardiologist. Georgia was diagnosed with a complex heart defect with four distinct problems: a large hole in the wall of her heart allowing blood with and without oxygen to mix, her aorta was in the wrong place, the pulmonary valve and artery were restricted, and the right ventricle got too thick from working so hard to get blood into the pulmonary artery.
“It was the most difficult day of our lives,” Mel Thurlow said.
Days later, surgeons at University Medical Center were able to install a shunt to help Georgia Grace’s heart operate more efficiently until she had grown big enough for a repair. When she was 6 months old, the family was sent to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for the major repair. The team approach at the hospital was wonderful, but they were far from their support network of friends and family.
For nearly 10 years, Georgia Grace passed her follow-up visits with flying colors. But in June, doctors found that a leaky pulmonary valve, which is common to her defect repair, needed to be replaced.
“It’s not what we wanted to hear,” Mel Thurlow said.
This time, her cardiologist, Dr. Jennifer Shore, who had recommended Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for the first surgery, pointed them towards the congenital heart surgery program at Blair E. Batson.
“Mel asked the Mom question, ‘What would you do if it was your child?’” Bill Thurlow said. “Dr. Shore said ‘I’d stay right here.’ That’s quite a statement.”
Georgia Grace has done well with her new valve, which came from a cow. Brother Mason, 9, likes to tease her that the doctors will now hear her heart moo.
She had to wait a few months to go back to biking and riding horses while her sternum fully healed. But the family was able to take a beach vacation a month after the surgery, and she didn’t miss any school because of the surgery.
The congenital heart team was first rate, and Batson has made so many changes to make the hospital a warm and inviting place for children and families, but the biggest difference in their experience was being surrounded by friends and family during the surgery and the recovery, the Thurlows said. Their pastor was able to be with them before and during the surgery. Georgia Grace’s best friend since preschool was able to visit as she recovered.
“It means a lot to have family and friends at your side during such a difficult time,” Mel Thurlow said. “I truly believe it helped speed Georgia Grace’s recovery. Had we been in Philadelphia again, it wouldn’t have been an option.”
michaela.morris@journalinc.com