Fighter baby Talo: Toddler had three heart attacks in just over a week

A little girl who had three massive heart attacks as a toddler has made a miraculous recovery, with her family crediting the team at Starship Children’s Hospital.

Little Taloapatina Ah-Shew was 14 months when she was first admitted to Starship in November 2019 after a doctor treating her for bronchitis found she had a heart murmur.

Scans at Middlemore Hospital showed she had a serious heart condition and needed specialist treatment.

Talo’s parents Siki and mum Maina Ah-Shew said they went from having a seemingly healthy and happy toddler to facing the harsh reality their baby might die.

It was after a more comprehensive scan at Starship that Talo had the first heart attack.

“She had the scan and she was in the recovery room and my wife was trying to breastfeed her and she wasn’t responding,” Siki said.

“She was taken back into theatre and then the doctor came out and said she had a massive heart attack.”

“Talo was absolutely fine that morning so you can imagine for us it was such a shock.”

The family was told the youngest of their six daughters was born with only half her heart functioning.

The left side wasn’t working and the right side was enlarged and weaker because it was compensating.

“They told us then and there it was not looking good, that she needed surgery.”

Siki and Maina were shocked at how quickly their daughter’s health deteriorated.

“We went in to see her and that experience will haunt me for the rest of my life,” Siki said.

“Walking in and seeing her all these things on her – it wasn’t the little girl we had just hours before.”

The couple stayed at Ronald McDonald House to be near Talo and surgery was booked for the following day.

But around 1.30am they were woken by a call from the doctors to come immediately – Talo had suffered a second massive heart attack.

“The doctors said they couldn’t guarantee Talo would be back, they said it is not looking good and to prepare for the worst,” Siki said.

“Our church leaders came in and blessed her and my family and my wife’s family came in and we said our prayers and sent her on for the operation.”

After an anxious wait, the family was told the operation had been a success. Doctors had stabilised the left side of Talo’s heart and a graft had improved the blood flow.

The toddler was put on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (Ecmo) machine which pumps and oxygenates the blood outside the body and allows the heart and lungs to rest.

“We went in to see her and I had never seen anyone in that state before in my life,” Siki said.

“Her chest was open and we could see the blood flowing in and out of that machine. We could see her heart which was amazing but really so scary at the same time.”

After a week on the Ecmo machine, Talo had tests and doctors said her heart could work on its own.

But the family’s relief was to be short-lived.

“We were waiting to see her in recovery and we saw one of her surgeons rush past,” Siki said.

“Some hours passed and then three surgeons came out to talk to us. We knew it wasn’t going to be good news and they told us she had another massive heart attack.”

The family was told Talo would probably not make it through the night and they were moved into a private room to spend precious time with their daughter.

“I remember pleading and saying “but you said it went well” and, “you said it was successful” but they said there was nothing more they could do,” Siki said.

“We asked about a transplant and they said they had checked and there was nothing available – It was up to Talo and God to pull her through.”

Siki said there were tears, prayers, and a lot of much-needed support from staff at the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU).

The next morning though Talo was “still going strong” and Siki went home to check on his other five daughters.

“When I got back to the hospital Talo’s room was empty and I was really worried and thought the worst,” Siki said.

“I rushed to reception and they said Talo had been moved because she was improving.”

“It was a miracle she had pulled through and now she was improving, she is a fighter.”

Now Talo’s heart is working at 85 per cent and the only outward hint at her battle is the scar down her chest.

She has medication twice a day and regular visits to the team at Starship.

“We are so grateful for the quality of life she has right now and we know it is because of the amazing work the doctors and nurses at Starship and PICU do,” Siki said.

“My wife and I always talk about the people there and the support they gave us. They were straight with us and supported us through the toughest time.”

Now a lively 3-year-old Talo has the quality of life of any other preschooler and her family are supporting a new fundraising drive to expand PICU.

The unit is now seeking donations for a $40 million expansion plan which will add 10 more intensive care beds by winter 2022.

It currently has 22 beds which are available to New Zealand’s 1.25 million children under 16 who need complex intensive care.

Starship director of surgical and intensive care services Dr John Beca said the expansion was critical.

“We’re under increasing pressure, we last expanded our bed numbers 12 years ago,” he said.

“We are nearly full every two or three days, and we can manage that currently but we need to do something in the next 12 to 18 months.”

About 1200 children are admitted to PICU every year.

“We can do so much more, and the things we can do now mean that children survive, who might not otherwise,” said Dr Beca.

Siki said his family would support PICU in any way they could and hoped sharing Talo’s story helped.

“We know what they did for Talo and felt their support but know there were so many other families going through the same struggle as us and getting that same support.”

“They hold a special place in our hearts now.”

Over the next two to three years, the expansion project will also involve building more support spaces for whānau and staff, and a medical day stay unit for children who do not need to stay overnight.

“Our nurses and clinicians can fix many things but they can’t fix a shortage of beds,” said Starship Foundation chief executive Aisha Daji Punga.

“We urgently need the help of generous New Zealanders to make this happen.”

Donations can be made online at www.starshipicu.org.nz or by contacting the Starship Foundation directly.

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