On January 22, 2013, a new chapter of life unfolded for Shannon and Alan Kirk. In the middle of a brisk Tuesday afternoon, Shannon gave birth to their first child, Reese, who, at 7 pounds, 11 ounces, was perfect in every way. The young 20-somethings, still practically newlyweds, were overjoyed to meet their daughter. They gathered as a new family in the hospital room and held their baby close. But within hours of her arrival, Reese began turning blue — a smoky, hazy shade of blue. Her color alarmed the nursing staff.
A pediatric cardiologist on call that night examined the newborn and quickly delivered the unsettling news: their daughter had a heart defect and required surgery, now. Would they sign a release so that Reese could be transported from Methodist Le Bonheur Germantown to Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital?
The couple stared back in disbelief.
“We were in shock; we didn’t know what to do,” says Shannon. “We didn’t feel grown up enough to make this decision.” But they did know they wanted the best care for their baby, so Reese was rushed to Le Bonheur.
“It was the worst night of my life,” says Shannon, “knowing she was with strangers. I thought if she needed anyone, it was her mother.” Since she’d delivered naturally only hours earlier, the hospital would not release Shannon until she could walk out on her own. She worked through the night and by 11 a.m. the next morning, she and Alan were on their way to be with Reese.
An Unsettling Diagnosis
They soon learned their daughter had been born with hypoplastic right heart syndrome, a rare congenital defect in which the ventricle and valves on the right side of the heart are malformed. The vessel restriction creates an uneven flow of blood, making the heart pound.
The news startled Shannon. She taught high school science and knew how the heart functioned. Yet like many new moms, “At first, I thought it was something I’d done — maybe if I’d not eaten at Taco Bell or had that Coke,” she says. But their pediatric cardiologist, Dr. Jean Ballweg, quickly reassured them that Reese was like thousands of other children who are born each year with congenital heart defects. Why they occur is unknown, she said.
To get the baby’s blood pumping more efficiently, their heart surgeon, Dr. Christopher Knott-Craig, took the least invasive measure first, inserting a balloon in hopes of holding the vessel wall open. At first, it appeared to be working. But a week after the procedure, Reese had a stroke and Shannon’s optimism began to waiver.
Her 25-year-old husband, Alan, who had been her rock, didn’t know how to help her. It was usually she who was the optimistic one, but now Shannon wouldn’t eat or shower; she didn’t even want to dress in the morning. Alan felt a sense of urgency. He sat Shannon down and poured out his anguish.
“I know you’re worried about the baby, but I’m at a loss to know what to do,” he said, looking at her steadily. “I’m worrying about losing two girls — you and Reese,” he whispered. His words touched her heart. She knew he was right, and so Shannon rallied, determined to be strong for all of them.
Gradually, the balloon failed, so Knott-Craig replaced it with a stint. Their hospital stay had now stretched to 24 days. They were on a first-name basis with the Le Bonheur cardiac staff, all of whom had been so helpful, says Shannon. But she was ready to go home. Then, in mid-February, they received word.
“It was supposed to have been February 13th, which would also have been special, since that was the day Alan and I met,” says Shannon. Instead, they brought Reese home on Valentine’s Day.
Life finally began to settle down for the Kirks. Shannon stayed at home and got to know her baby while Alan went to his job as a mechanic. Both breathed a little easier. And as each month passed, Reese flourished.
When she would reach a baby milestone, whether it was sitting up or reaching out, Shannon felt reassured that she was progressing normally. Then, at the end of April, during her regular two-week check-up, doctors grew concerned. They had hoped Reese’s heart could grow into the right ventricle. But the vessel had grown more constricted again, slowing down blood flow to the heart. As had been suggested early on, their baby would have to undergo a more invasive heart surgery.
It was pouring rain that day and the gloom threatened to bring her down further. But Shannon steeled herself, thinking, “I’ve done this once, I can do it again.”
The couple received assurance that the procedure was “98 percent” effective. But this time, they would open Reese up and repair the valve itself. It would require a two-and-a-half inch incision and delicate work on a heart just four months old. For several hours, the couple waited nervously. Finally, Knotts-Craig appeared. The surgery had been a success. Thankfully, the surgery was successful and her two-and-a-half-inch incision grows fainter with each passing day.
To see Reese today, so bubbly and bright, you wouldn’t know of her struggles. Yet she has grown her parents’ hearts and now, they beat as one.