Jenny wasn’t sure why she and her husband were so set on celebrating their anniversary in Atlanta four years ago. They were new parents to 6-week-old Raylan, who had been fussy all morning at their Smiths Station, Ala., home. It would’ve been typical for them to just stay home, but for some reason, they decided to press on. When Raylan began screaming uncontrollably in the reptile house at Zoo Atlanta, they were about to find out why.
“We tried everything to get him to calm down, but nothing worked. When I picked him up, he was sweaty but felt ice cold to the touch,” Jenny said. “We knew something was very wrong.”
Jenny, a nurse anesthetist at Piedmont Columbus Regional Hospital, and husband Micheal rushed Raylan to Atlanta Medical Center, then transferred to the Egleston ED. At first, doctors weren’t sure what was wrong and treated Raylan for septic shock. An echo didn’t immediately reveal the eventual diagnosis, made after a cardiac fellow requested a second echo: coarctation of the aorta. Within 48 hours, Raylan was in surgery to repair the defect.
A post-op echo then revealed that Raylan had mitral valve disease as well, and his valve was beyond repair. After several weeks on a ventilator, Raylan received a mechanical valve replacement at 10 weeks old and was put on blood thinners for life. Raylan was eventually diagnosed with Shone’s Complex.
We were told many times that if we hadn’t been in Atlanta that day, there was no way he would’ve lived long enough to be properly diagnosed and transported there,” Jenny said. “His heart would’ve given out. We were at the right place at the right time.”
Jenny, who was an open heart surgery ICU nurse before becoming a nurse anesthetist, struggled with having to hand her child over to someone else, but she was quickly convinced that Raylan was in the right hands. She appreciated the way his team collaborated, was sensitive to the family’s needs and exuded confidence, reassuring her that they knew exactly what they were doing.
“Being a nurse was a blessing but also a curse because I knew too much,” Jenny said. “I was freaking out at every changing number on the screen. I was grateful I knew what I knew because I understood what was going on, but I had to step back and tell myself I need to be his mommy right now, not his nurse.”
Raylan, now 4, is thriving and sees Dr. Suthar at Sibley Heart Center in Columbus. Jenny says he receives great care there, and they stay on top of his condition. She confirms what the doctors told her four years ago: Babies are very resilient.
“It’s tough thinking about all the possibilities when you have a heart baby,” Jenny said. “So many things could go wrong. I wondered how he would get past this. Would he be like other kids? Would he need extra help and attention? But he’s just like any other kid in his class. Maybe a little smaller in stature, but he does everything everyone else does. I don’t treat him any differently than my daughter. He’s having a very normal childhood.”
In another twist of fate, because Shone’s can be inherited, Jenny and Micheal were genetically tested. They discovered Micheal has a CHD: Bicuspid aortic valve disease, something they may never have known without Raylan’s diagnosis. He is being monitored closely, and for now, has no problems. The Woodhams had another child, Reese, who is 2 and shows no signs of heart illness.
Since going on this journey with Raylan, Jenny says she now connects to her own patients on a different level. If she’s talking with a patient struggling with being on blood thinners or with a relatable illness, she pulls out pictures of her lively little son and talks about what a trooper he is.
“It gives them a new perspective,” Jenny said. “I feel like it makes them happy, and it makes me happy, too.”
For more information about Sibley Heart Center Cardiology and our pediatric cardiology specialists, click here.