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Pediatric Cardiology Patient Nathaniel Day

Day Nathaniel 177pxNathaniel Day, 5 ½, finds the halls familiar and the smiling faces welcoming when he makes his semi-annual trips to Brenner Children's Hospital.

There, his doctor, Amanda Cook, checks up on his heart.

When Nathaniel was born, his parents, Leanna and Matthew Day, already knew that their baby would need immediate surgery. Doctors at Brenner had discovered a congenital condition, pulmonary atresia, during his mother's pregnancy. Nathaniel's pulmonary valve, which allows blood to move into the lungs to pick up oxygen, had developed improperly. The defective valve blocked that passage of blood.

Leanna, who had given birth to a healthy boy five years before, was happily awaiting the birth of her second when she went for her 20-week checkup. But when tests showed a problem with the baby's heart, a pall fell over the family.

"The rest of my pregnancy was pretty terrible," Leanna said. She worried about the defect, about the surgeries her son would need, about how different his life would be. After the initial discovery of the defect, doctors told the Days, who live in Greensboro, to wait two weeks, go to another hospital and confirm the defect.

The news remained the same, and the Days heard words that lay heavy on their hearts. Doctors told them they could choose to abort the baby.

"I'm sure they have to say that," Leanna said. "But I had already had the ultrasound, I had already felt the baby move. We loved this child and were committed to him." She also took issue with being told that if she chose to continue the pregnancy, labor would be induced at 37 weeks.

"It was all on their schedule," she said.

The Days looked for a hospital with a better "fit," and they chose Brenner. Doctors there said they would do everything they could to help Leanna carry her baby as long as possible so that he would be big enough to undergo surgery within a week of his birth.

Nathaniel Day was born on Oct. 25, 2004, nearly at full term and weighing 5 pounds, 8 ounces. Three days later, doctors inserted a shunt, a tube that would allow some oxygenated blood to flow through his body. The temporary repair would keep him going until they could insert a donor heart valve to replace the one he was missing and close the hole in his heart.

The Days took their boy home, where their lives revolved around taking care of him. Leanna pumped breast milk and fed him with a bottle because the strength it took to nurse overworked his heart. If he cried too much, he could pass out. So the Days took turns holding him through the night so he wouldn't fuss.

They kept Nicholas, their older son, out of preschool so that he wouldn't bring germs home, and Leanna remained homebound because she couldn't take Nathaniel out.

At 5 ½ months, Nathaniel underwent his second surgery, receiving a donor valve.

The caring and dedicated staff at Brenner eased the stress that the Days were under, Leanna said "It is their agenda, in a way, just taking into consideration the families' needs. It makes you realize that they understand what you're going through and that you're not just a patient."

After his surgeries, Nathaniel rebounded and started to become the healthy child he was meant to be -- sweet, friendly and active. He loves trucks and trains and tractors and playing with his brother.

Last summer, Nathaniel needed another surgery to widen his arteries and replace his original donor valve with a larger one. His mother spent nights in his room in the hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit, and when she mentioned that she wished she could lie next to him and hold him close, a nurse moved all his wires and tubes so that she could.

"That brought tears to my eyes," Leanna said. "All I wanted to do was be beside my baby and hold him."

The Days don't know how long the newest valve will last. "How long each child keeps a valve is different," Leanna said. "Some keep them for several years – some outgrow it."

The Days try not to think about more surgery as they visit Brenner every six months for Nathaniel's checkups.

"We go doctor visit to doctor visit," Leanna said. "We just enjoy and cherish the time we have with him.”