Just before Valentine’s Day 2021, Jennifer and Alejandro Cantu, already parents to 3-year-old Camila and 2-year-old Lyla, were thrilled when they found out their family would be growing once again.
“I was surprised and excited,” said Jennifer. “I waited the following day to tell my husband in a cute little way. I bought a bunch of Valentine’s Day knickknacks – five gum balls, five little hearts, 5 little bubbles – five of everything, and put it in a basket along with a bundle of wrapped up positive pregnancy tests. I wrote on the heart, “What do you think of the number five?” My husband was puzzled at first and then he finally got it. We were thrilled to find out that we were having another baby sooner than expected.”
Unlike her first two pregnancies, Jennifer was extremely sick during this one – the constant morning sickness just wouldn’t go away. She felt nauseated all the time and super tired. As much as she loved chocolate, she couldn’t eat sweets because it would make her feel sick, which was strange to her.
“I knew something was off,” said Jennifer. “I could tell my body wasn’t responding normally. Every time I would eat something sweet, I would get sick. It wasn’t like pregnancy sick. It was more jittery, like I was going to pass out because my sugar was off. So, my maternal fetal medicine (MFM) physician in Georgetown, north of Austin, gave me a two-hour gestational diabetes test and I failed it. Since I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes, I had to adjust to a strict diet. I wasn’t allowed to eat sweets. I couldn’t drink any juice, just water. I ate a lot of chicken, vegetables and eggs, and I had to check my sugars three times a day after every meal. That was challenging as well because pricking your finger hurts when you do it wrong.”
As Jennifer was dealing with pregnancy challenges of her own, it wasn’t until she was 28 weeks along that she found out her baby boy had a ventricular septal defect (VSD), a type of congenital heart defect where a hole forms in the wall between the ventricles, the main pumping chambers of the heart. Her MFM physician wasn’t too concerned about it at the time, and told Jennifer that after her son’s birth, he would need another echocardiogram to check on his heart condition to see if he needed interventions.
“After we relocated our family to San Antonio, I began seeing Dr. Angela Akonye, an OB-GYN at the Women’s Center in Westover Hills,” said Jennifer. “I updated her on my gestational diabetes diagnosis and that my son had a small hole in his heart. Dr. Akonye referred me to Dr. James Hill, an Maternal Fetal Medicine physician at The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio (CHofSA). I was about 30 weeks when my husband and I saw Dr. Hill for the first time. He gave us such a warm welcome. He was knowledgeable and made us feel comfortable. He just gave off a really good vibe. No question was a dumb question for him. He gave us that platform to talk and he just listened to us and answered any questions or concerns that we had.”
Then, Dr. Hill referred Jennifer to The Children’s Hospital to have a fetal echocardiogram. He wanted to make sure nothing else was wrong with her baby’s heart. After the echocardiogram, she met with Dr. Chetan Sharma, who would become her son’s pediatric cardiologist. At the time, Dr. Sharma noticed a small hole in his heart and was concerned about a possible narrowing of the aortic arch so he suggested Jennifer deliver at CHofSA.
“I met with Dr. Hill and told him everything about my son’s echocardiogram,” said Jennifer. “Even though the test showed my son had a hole in his heart, Dr. Hill was adamant about us delivering at Children’s Hospital because they had a great team in place. I will never forget what he told me that still resonates with me today. He said, ‘After you deliver, make sure you get an echo done ASAP to rule out any other problems. Do not leave the hospital until you get it. Your baby needs that test.’”
A few days leading up to the birth of their son, Jennifer embraced the last couple of days being pregnant and spent quality time with her husband and their two girls. She soaked in that little bit of time she had before their newest addition joined their family. This third pregnancy was bittersweet for the couple since this was their final pregnancy. This would be the last time Jennifer would experience giving birth to another baby and the emotions that come along with meeting that precious newborn for the first time.
“I was already 3 centimeters dilated by the time I got to the hospital for my induction around 9 p.m.,” said Jennifer. “I didn’t get Pitocin until the next morning because they wanted to wait to see if my body would progress on its own. An hour or two after I got an epidural, I was ready to push. I pushed for about two minutes, and not long after that, my husband and I welcomed our beautiful son, Jax, on October 5, 2021. He was almost 8 pounds and he cried immediately when he was born. It was a surreal moment for us. This was my last baby, so I experienced a mixture of emotions that day. I was also very anxious too. I knew Jax had a hole in his heart and that he needed to get an echocardiogram right away. I recalled what Dr. Hill told me over and over again – do not leave the hospital until he gets that test.”
The next morning, the cardiology team entered Jennifer’s room to perform an echocardiogram, or an ultrasound of Jax’s heart. They started the echocardiogram, and when Jennifer woke up from her nap, she noticed they were still in the room. When they finally left, Jennifer and her husband grew concerned that the echo took longer than usual. They began wondering if something else was wrong with their son’s heart. Moments later, a swarm of doctors came in the room. The cardiologist on call told them Jax had a hole in his heart called a PDA, or Patent Ductus Arteriosus, which would mostly likely close on its own. A PDA is diagnosed when the ductus arteriosus, or the opening between the aorta (the artery that carries oxygen-rich blood to the body) and the pulmonary artery (the artery that carries oxygen-poor blood to the lungs) does not close as it should. Jax also had two other heart defects, a bicuspid valve and a Coarctation of the aorta. The last diagnosis is what concerned the doctors the most.
“The doctor drew us a diagram of Jax’s heart,” said Jennifer. “He said he had a narrowing of the aorta, which forces the heart to pump harder to get blood through the aorta and to the rest of the body. He said Jax had a PDA that was open. If that closes, he wasn’t going to have enough blood pumping to his lower organs. So, his organs were going to start to fail – his liver, kidneys, everything would shut down. It was less than 24 hours that I had my baby in my arms and all this stuff started to hit me – one thing after another. I started to bawl my eyes out. I was in shock and was terrified. The cardiologist told me this wasn’t an affirmative diagnosis because they were still waiting for the PDA to close to see what would happen to the narrowing of the aorta. They did another echo later that day. The PDA closed, and it revealed that he had coarcation of the aorta. When the doctors left, I just kept thinking about Dr. Hill and what he told me early on in my pregnancy – and I am glad I listened to him. If my baby didn’t get that test at that point in time, he would have died. My son is literally here today because of Dr. Hill.”
Jax needed heart surgery. But until he had his surgery, his cardiology team wanted to keep the PDA open for a few more days. They wanted Jax to be at least a week old before he had surgery. While his nurses took care of him in the NICU, Jax was given medication to keep the PDA open to allow blood flow to his body beyond the coarctation. Jennifer and her husband met with Dr. Victor Bautista-Hernandez, a cardiothoracic surgeon at The Children’s Hospital, who explained how he would repair Jax’s defect.
“Newborns who have extensive narrowing in the aorta usually need surgery soon after birth,” said Dr. Bautista. “To repair coarctation surgically, clamps are placed on the aorta to quickly interrupt blood flow to downstream areas. In Jax’s case, we performed a resection with anastomosis where we removed the narrowed segment of the aorta and reconnected the two ends together. When we did the first repair, I didn’t like what I was seeing after we closed him up and did an echocardiogram. We had to redo the repair twice before I was satisfied with the repair surgery. Jax did well during the procedure. With this repair, we were able to open the narrowed aorta to allow enough blood to flow throughout his body.”
After his surgery, Jax was swollen, heavily sedated and hooked up to many different machines, as he spent one week in the PICU recovering before he could go home. Now, 9 months old, Jax is doing great. Jennifer says everything is checking out well for him developmental wise. While he has a very slight narrowing in his aorta, his blood pressure medication is maintaining it, so it doesn’t close. He sees his cardiologist, Dr. Sharma, every month for follow-up visits. He won’t need another surgery, but he may need a ballooning or a stent procedure to expand his artery down the road if the narrowing returns. He still has a bicuspid valve, but his doctors are monitoring it closely. He doesn’t need additional surgery at this time.
“I am so grateful to all of the doctors who took great care of our son,” said Jennifer. “I had a wonderful experience at Children’s Hospital. First of all, I want to thank my MFM physician, Dr. Hill. I owe my son’s life to this man. If my son didn’t get that echocardiogram soon after he was born, the situation would have been much different. Dr. Bautista was an amazing surgeon. It’s hard working with little patients. You don’t know what to expect. They are very small and vulnerable, but he was the miracle worker. His nurse practitioner, Amanda, was awesome and updated me on everything going on in the OR. She was reassuring us and providing us with detailed information and was always there when we needed her. We are just happy to have Jax with us. He is a living and breathing miracle. He completes our family.”
The Heart Center at The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio provides comprehensive care to children with rare to complex heart problems. To learn more about our Heart Center, please visit:
Pediatric Cardiology & Heart Care | CHRISTUS Health
To learn more about diagnosing and treating gestational diabetes, please read: https://chofsablog.org/2021/09/29/youve-been-diagnosed-with-gestational-diabetes-now-what/