Not even open-heart surgery.
Only three days after a surgical team separated the first-grader’s sternum to repair defects in the atrium, ventricles and valves of her heart, Savannah and her family were on their way back home to Hillsboro.
The medical team at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City had told the family they should expect to spend eight to 10 days at the hospital for Savannah’s initial recovery.
“It was like, ‘No! I don’t want to go home already—it’s been only three days,’” her mother Steffany said about her initial response.
At the same time, Steffany said she wasn’t totally surprised, given her daughter’s response after her five-hour ordeal.
“Just the day after, she got in her wheelchair and was wheeling herself around—and would not let us push her,” Steffany said. “I thought we were going to do wheelies in the hall.”
Savannah’s speedy recovery is only part of what her parents see as a miracle in their daughter’s life. It turns out Savannah was born with an atrioventricular septal defect and a canal defect that went undetected until a cardiologist’s diagnosis about six months ago.
“First, he had said there was just a hole in the ventrical, but then there actually was a pretty large hole in the atrium and the ventricles, and her valves were odd to where the blood was just circulating around,” Steffany said.
“They said she was getting only 50 percent of her blood flow to the brain, so she was getting headaches, seizures, shortness of breath, and her legs and arms were getting cold,” she added.
“When the (surgical) team came around, they said they were surprised her heart made it seven years, it was so enlarged and had been working so hard.”
Steffany said symptoms began to surface when Savannah was 2 years old. Trips to the family doctor, and even a neurologist, revealed nothing out of the ordinary.
“I just kept taking her back and taking her back,” Steffany said. “This last year at school she was having to sit at recess all the time, and even when she laid down in bed she had some shortness of breath.
“I would watch her and her color would be bad. She was getting discouraged about why she felt that way.”
Deciding on surgery
About six months ago, Steffany, who works as a nurse, called the doctor and asked that he schedule an echocardiogram, which is a sonogram of the heart.
Initially, the report proved inconclusive.
“They told me it was normal for a 7-year-old,” Steffany said. “So I asked them to fax (the report) to me—and it was not normal at all. So I asked to be set up with a cardiologist.”
The cardiologist discovered the defects and told the family that open-heart surgery was required.
“There aren’t many pediatric cardio surgeons,” Steffany said. “But the guy who was supposed to be the best in this specific surgery was in Kansas City.”
The surgery was scheduled for June 26 in part because of the dearth of surgeons.
“There was a list, and a lot of people in front of her,” said Brad, Savannah’s father. “They generally try to do (the surgeries) in summer when school is out.”
Over the ensuing weeks, Steffany said they didn’t talk a lot about the surgery as a family.
“I didn’t even want to think about it much,” Steffany said. “Savannah had lots of questions, though. But really, we tried not to talk about it too much around her.”
In late May, the family took a two-week trip to Disney World in Florida, something Savannah had been looking forward to.
“She was scared she’d miss Disney, but we made it,” Steffany said. “We just took a stroller everywhere we went so she wouldn’t get tired out.
“She knew the surgery was ‘after Disney,’ and she asked lots of questions,” her mother added.
When June 26 arrived, the family checked into Children’s Mercy Hospital at 6:30 a.m.; Savannah was wheeled away for surgery around 8 a.m.
“They said the surgery time was going to be about 21⁄2 hours,” Brad said. “But they said with all the anesthesia and prep work, we were looking at five hours (before Savannah would return).”
At the point of departure, Savannah seemed to be the most relaxed person in the room, Steffany said.
“She had an iPad, she was playing some game, she smiled. If she had been crying, it would have killed me.”
A member of the surgical team came out each hour to update the family, and at about 1 p.m. Savannah was back with them—right on schedule.
“Actually, it was kind of cool the way they repaired that hole,” Steffany said. “There’s a pericardial sac around your heart. They took a piece of that to patch up the holes. It’s her own tissue, so she won’t reject it.”
Members of Steffany’s and Brad’s extended families were on hand for moral support, and that made a big difference.
“I’ve been so lucky to have that all my life,” Steffany said.
Nearly three weeks since her surgery, Savannah appears to be fully recovered—which one might expect of this energetic young girl.
But it isn’t quite the case. Savannah is under doctor’s orders to limit her activities for the first 30 days.
“The restrictions are not because of her heart, but because of the sternum,” Steffany said. “They don’t want that to pull apart—just to make sure that bone heals good.
“Sometimes I forget she even had surgery because she looks so good,” she added.
Sometimes Savannah forgets, too.
“She got on the trampoline last night and said, ‘I’m just going to sit here,’” Steffany said. “I was vacuuming my car and then I saw she was jumping on it. She said, ‘Mom, I just can’t help it!’”
Aside from the sternum, Steffany said Savannah’s previous symptoms have disappeared and she’s feeling much better than she did prior to the surgery.
As for the future, the Shahans expect to bring Savannah in for a checkup once a year until she’s about 18 or so. She may require a surgical procedure on her heart valves down the road, but her doctor said she probably won’t need it.
For now, the miracle of Savannah’s initial recovery is more than enough good news.
“I know kids heal faster, but I really believe in cases like this it’s a lot about prayers, too,” Steffany said. “There were a lot of people praying.”
And don’t forget the determination of one brave little girl.
“She was tough through all of it,” Brad said. “It was harder on us than it was on her. She was super tough.”