Kids' Medical Miracles: Back in Action

Sarahjoy Sanzone has had a life filled with more travel and more surgeries than most people ever experience.

And she’s only 6 years old.

Three days after arriving home with adopted Sarahjoy in the winter of 2011, Ashleigh and Eric Sanzone of Virginia Beach became rebels of sorts.

“We had adopted another daughter from China. The agency told us both times, ‘Do not take your child to a doctor right away,’” Ashleigh recalls. “They said, ‘Take time to be together and bond.’”

The couple, parents to five children, ignored the advice—and thankfully so. Ashley could hear Sarahjoy’s heart pounding when they hugged. And Sarahjoy, 26 months old, didn’t want to walk. Most toddlers can’t be bribed to sit for a minute.

A doctor hired by the adoption agency had reviewed Sarahjoy’s medical file earlier and shared her history with the Sanzones: The little girl had a heart defect, but it wasn’t a big concern. Maybe at some point surgery could be necessary—but that was a maybe.

The “possible” turned to a definite quickly when the Sanzones took Sarahjoy to their pediatrician’s office their third day home.

After examining Sarahjoy, the pediatrician wanted them to see a pediatric cardiologist—and to not waste any time doing so.

Two days later, Dr. Michael Vance of Children’s Specialty Group at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters (CHKD) conducted an exam and an echocardiogram. He found that Sarahjoy’s heart condition wasn’t minor—and surgery would be necessary.

“‘In the next few months?,’” Ashleigh remembers asking. “I was told, ‘No, next week if we can.’ Her heart was nearly twice the size it should have been.”

Sarahjoy had a large ventricular septal defect (VSD), a hole in the wall separating the ventricles, the heart’s two pumping chambers. A VSD causes too much blood from the heart to go into the lungs. The overload can cause pulmonary hypertension and damage the lungs. Doctors often detect the condition around birth. If necessary, they repair it when a child is between 3 and 6 months old, before significant harm can be done. The hole is usually closed in surgery with Gore-Tex, a synthetic material people associate with ski jackets.

Sarahjoy’s operation went well, but her recovery in the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) presented challenges: She had been with her new family for less than a month. She hadn’t gotten to know her parents, nor her two sisters and two brothers. She didn’t speak English. She didn’t know why she was in a hospital. She was cautious as a result: When a doctor or nurse approached her bed, she would turn her head, roll away and turn silent.

Some caregivers may assume a child who isn’t crying out isn’t in pain. But Mom Ashleigh found the CHKD staff wise: She remembers one of Sarahjoy’s cardiologists, Dr. Alexander Ellis, reminding the PICU staff not to think that way.

“He realized that our daughter was probably too scared to say or do anything about her pain,” she says. “He really took time to see things through her eyes.”

After two weeks of recovering in the hospital, Sarahjoy returned to the Sanzones’ home and adjusted well to her new family. For a long time, she was an active and rambunctious toddler. Looking back, Ashleigh thinks she started to notice a bit of a change in Sarahjoy about a year ago.

“She was more subdued,” she says. “I thought she was just growing up.”

Ashleigh remembers Dr. Ellis “picking up a little something different” during an exam in 2013 during an annual check-up. Nothing of great concern at the time. In early 2015, though, Ashleigh and Eric learned from Dr. Ellis that a residual hole in Sarahjoy’s heart was opening, and her heart was enlarging again.

“We understood that a small residual hole had always existed since the first surgery,” Ashleigh says. “Doctors leave a small opening if they feel they’re close to what was described to me as an invisible ‘electrical’ system in the heart.”

With the hole opening and Sarahjoy’s energy being affected by it, in March 2015 the Sanzones opted for another procedure called a transcatheter device closure.

“Dr. Vance inserted a device through a catheter in Sarahjoy’s leg and neck and used the device to close the hole,” Ashleigh explains.

Sarahjoy’s reaction?

“She was in PICU one night for observation,” says Ashleigh. “She had a great time, drinking Icees and watching movies. Now she’s back to being herself. She’s just so energetic; we call her ‘little spazzy’ because of the way she’s always moving.”

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