Monday, February 13, 2012

Valentine’s Day: A new heart for 12-week-old baby boy

By Barbara Turnbull, The Toronto Star

Doctors at the Hospital for Sick Children have mended four broken hearts in time for Valentine’s Day.

George Xenarios is just 12 weeks old, but is home in Richmond Hill today with his parents, Kostas Xenarios and Helen Chialtas and sister, Ellie, after a successful heart transplant early last month.

The family’s saga began last November, when an otherwise-normal pregnancy became a potential tragedy.

At 33 weeks, the 35-year-old felt pain in her pelvic area and her weight suddenly ballooned. An ultrasound showed the fetus had fluid around the brain, heart and abdomen. Chialtas was admitted to Mount Sinai Hospital and given a choice to try and hang on, but risk a stillborn baby, or have a caesarean section — still with no guarantee of a healthy child.

Her doctor didn’t know what was wrong. “He just kept repeating ‘You have a very, very sick child,’ ” Chialtas recalls, choking back her tears.

This wasn’t the couples first birth-related tragedy. A year earlier, when Chialtas was 20 weeks pregnant, doctors discovered her fetus had died in utero. The couple couldn’t chance going through that again, so they chose an emergency C-section. George was born Nov. 17.

“Hearing him cry was wonderful,” Chialtas recalls.

But baby George wasn’t healthy. He had cardiomyopathy, a weakness of the heart muscle. “His heart was put together properly, it just didn’t work normally,” says George’s cardiologist, Dr. Anne Dipchand. “He had very significant or severe end-stage heart failure.”

George would not be leaving the hospital without a new heart.

Between 30 to 35 pediatric heart transplants are performed in Canada each year, 65 per cent at Sick Kids. In 2010, 167 heart transplants were performed in Canada, five were in patients under one year old.

The next six weeks were a blur. Chialtas returned to work at the couple’s gallery, XC Art Restoration with Xenarios, 62. “It was a way of coping,” she says. “I didn’t have a baby to take care of.”

Mornings were spent at work, afternoons at the hospital and evenings with 3-year-old Ellie.

The couple bonded with other parents at Sick Kids, sharing the ups and downs of the conditions of each other’s babies.

“If they had a bad day, you’d go home with your heart aching, even if George was okay.”

And then during what started out as another routine day, the family was asked to meet with Dipchand.

“She said `There is a heart available,’ ” Chialtas recalls fresh tears flowing. They were asked for permission to do the transplant.

It took just four hours for doctors to remove George’s diseased heart and attach the walnut-sized new one.

George was discharged seven days later and is thriving, with a good chance to live a long life, Dipchand says.

“During the surgery I knew he was in good hands and that everything was going to go well,” says Chialtas. “That’s when I started thinking about the other family.”

In particular, she thought about the grieving mother, and the little time she had to consider donating her dying child’s organs.

“I just kept thinking about her and what pain she was going through now that her baby has passed. She was strong enough that she wanted to give other children life and she donated these organs,” Chialtas says.

“We know what a gift he is and we are going to love George the way they would have loved theirs.”

After several drafts, Chialtas and Xenarios are almost finished a letter of gratitude to that anonymous family, whose hearts, they know, are still broken.

To join Ontario's organ and tissue donation registry go to

“You Have the Power to Donate Life – to become an organ and tissue donor Sign-up today!
Tell Your Loved Ones of Your Decision”
Australia, register at Australian Organ Donor Register
New Zealand, register at Organ Donation New Zealand
South Africa,
United States,
United Kingdom, register at NHS Organ Donor Register
Your generosity can save or enhance the lives of up to fifty people with heart, kidneys, liver, lungs, pancreas and small intestine transplants (see allotransplantation). One tissue donor can help by donating skin, corneas, bone, tendon, ligaments and heart valves
Has your life been saved by an organ transplant? "Pay it forward" and help spread the word about the need for organ donation - In the U.S. another person is added to the national transplant waiting list every 11 minutes and 18 people die each day waiting for an organ or tissue transplant. Organs can save lives, corneas renew vision, and tissue may help to restore someone's ability to walk, run or move freely without pain. Life Begins with You.

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