Toddler's story of survival highlights importance of organ donation

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- Making the decision to become an organ donor can save lives. That's especially true for a little girl who was born with a severe congenital heart defect. The odds were stacked against her, until she received a special gift.

Julianna is your average two-year-old girl. But the journey getting here is one she'll carry with her the rest of her life.

"When I was six weeks pregnant, I went to my doctor and found out I had breast cancer," Juliana's mother, Riki Graves told us.

She was living in Corpus Christi when her doctor recommended treatment in Houston. She went to Texas Children's Hospital to monitor the pregnancy during her cancer treatment. But at 20 weeks, something was wrong with Julianna's heart.

"She was diagnosed with hypoplastic left heart syndrome," Riki said.

A congenital defect where the left side of the heart is critically underdeveloped. So Riki made a decision to put her cancer treatments on hold, to focus on her unborn daughter.

Riki told us, "She was delivered at 36 weeks because she was in heart failure."

Dr. Jeff Dreyer is the medical director of Heart Failure, Cardiomyopathy and Cardiac Transplantation.

"Julianna's heart did not develop properly. It was malformed. And it was malformed enough that it could not be repaired," he said.

Julianna's case was extremely unusual, and unfortunately there was little chance for survival.

Dr. Dreyer said "the only option was to perform a heart transplant."

But the odds were not in her favor.

"As a long shot we put her on a transplant list," Riki explained. "We were told it could take 3 to 6 months to get a baby heart. We knew she couldn't make it that long, but we thought we'd try."

But five days after she was listed, a heart became available.

According to Dr. Dreyer, "Infant surgery is very challenging. If you think about it, the heart she received is about the size of a strawberry."

Julianna received the heart transplant, and surgery was a success.

A few weeks after she received her heart transplant, Riki continued with her radiation. She finished treatments and is living cancer free today. Julianna is healthy as well.

Regarding organ donation, Riki told us, "It's something I think everyone should consider. If you could help other families, why wouldn't you?"
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