Nico’s birth was full of surprises for his mom Jennifer. The biggest one being that he was a boy, when all along she had been expecting a daughter. That wasn’t the only unexpected realization. He lacked a fully-formed tibia (the bone that connects the knee and ankle), was missing his left thumb, and had several structural heart disease defects, none of which had been diagnosed prenatally.
Unexpected heart defects
Nico was diagnosed with unbalanced AV Canal (AVC), Anomalous Pulmonary Venous Connection (APVC), and Ventricular Septal Defect (VSD) due to the underdevelopment and abnormal formation of his heart and major blood vessels. Jennifer learned early on that her son’s heart conditions were treatable with a series of open heart surgeries and/or cardiac catheterization procedures.
The day after he was born, Nico was transported to CHOC. He underwent his first heart surgery when he was only three days old, under the care of Dr. Richard Gates, a CHOC pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon and co-director of the CHOC Heart Institute. Nico’s second heart surgery happened before his first birthday, and he’ll have a third heart surgery later this year.
“Despite Nico’s significant heart condition, he has responded well to each surgery, becoming stronger right before our eyes,” says Dr. Gates. “I look forward to his final surgery which should allow him to continue to be active and happy.”
Jennifer knew that someday Nico would need to have his leg amputated below the knee, Since Nico’s tibia bone connecting his knee and ankle wasn’t fully formed, it meant his ankle didn’t have the support it needed. Her original plan was to have that surgery performed at another facility closer to their home, when she was told they weren’t comfortable operating on his leg due to his heart conditions. Soon after, she and Nico were at CHOC meeting an orthopaedic specialist to discuss a prosthetic for his leg.
“I didn’t know what we were going to do, but during his prosthetic appointment, we learned CHOC would be comfortable performing his surgery, and could schedule it for just a few weeks later! I was thrilled we could do it earlier because I don’t want him to get to a point later on in life when he remembered or missed when he had more of a leg,” Jennifer recalls.
Shortly before his third birthday, Nico underwent surgery to amputate his leg below the knee under the care of Dr. Francois Lalonde, a CHOC pediatric orthopaedic surgeon.
After spending just one night in the hospital ―including a checkup with his cardiologist, Dr. Nafiz Kiciman, to make sure his heart looked alright after surgery― Nico was discharged.
“Nico is a brave and courageous young boy with an easy-going personality,” says Dr. Lalonde. “He has demonstrated great resilience and coping skills following surgery and wound care, and is already adapting well following the amputation of his left ankle.”
His doctors told his mom he should take it easy for a few days, but as soon as his cast was removed, he was quickly back to his old habits of climbing on furniture and jumping on pillows.
“I never want my son to have the mentality that he is limited,” Jennifer says. “Kids can sense if their parent is worried or scared, and I didn’t want him to feel like that. He’s too young to feel anxious on his own, so I made sure I didn’t bubble wrap him and let him play like his normal self.”
The importance of pediatric specialists for wound care therapy
The week after surgery, Nico and his mom started coming back to CHOC a few times per week for wound care, where specially-trained pediatric physical therapists would clean and rebandage his leg. In between those appointments, Jennifer cared for the wound at home.
“At his first appointment, he saw a new person walking into the room with all these supplies he had never seen before, and it was a lot for him to take in. He covered his eyes and wiggled around during the appointment,” Jennifer recalls.
To make Nico feel at ease, his physical therapist Sandy started letting him help her care for his wound.
“I wanted to be honest with him about what they’re going to do at this appointment, but frame it in a positive way so he knows it’s for his own good and he doesn’t have to be scared. It’s important to explain things in a way that he will understand,” Sandy says. “If you’re honest with the child, they’ll start to trust you. If you say, “this won’t hurt” and it hurts, then you’ve lost their trust.”
Once Nico was involved, he immediately understood that he didn’t have to be scared of wound care, and that it could even be fun.
Now, when Sandy finishes one step, he grabs the next supply that she’ll need. He almost sees it as a game. “Ok Nico, we’re done with this part. What part is next?” Sandy says to him.
These days, before each appointment, when Jennifer asks Nico if he wants to go see Sandy, he squeals and claps with delight.
“I tell him, “Let’s go see Sandy! She’s going to clean your owie and make it feel better.” My positive mentality was contagious for him. I was excited, so he was excited,” Jennifer says. “If the kid sees the parents squeamish during wound care or sees a worried expression on their face, then the kid will be apprehensive. Whenever we come to wound care appointments I make sure I speak to him in a very upbeat, positive way so he feels like physical therapy is fun and not something to be scared of, which helps him to relax. Positive energy is contagious.”
Continuity of care has also helped Nico feel more comfortable.
“It has helped him to have the same one or two physical therapists each time, so it’s a familiar face.”
Once Nico’s leg was fully healed from surgery, he resumed physical therapy, was fitted for a prosthetic, and started walking. In between all of that, he continues to love anything Star Wars, playing Ninja Turtles, coloring and attending pre-Kindergarten classes.
For more about CHOC’s Heart Institute