Gia had open heart surgery at three days old. Now, she’s celebrating her second birthday.

Michele and John McGovern III always dreamed of starting their own family. So, when they found out they were pregnant and expecting their first child in March of 2020, words could not describe how overjoyed, blessed, and hopeful the couple felt.

After what seemed to be a smooth and typical pregnancy, the McGoverns received shocking news during their 20-week scan. Baby Gia had a congenital heart defect known as Tetralogy of Fallot.

A common heart defect, Tetralogy of Fallot is characterized by four distinct conditions including:

  1. A hole between the lower chambers of the heart.
  2. An obstruction from the heart to the lungs.
  3. The aorta lying over the hole in the lower chambers.
  4. A thickening of the heart muscle surrounding the lower right chamber.

Babies with Tetralogy of Fallot are often known as “blue babies” at birth due to oxygen-poor blood and require surgery to repair the heart.

Following Gia’s diagnosis, the McGoverns transferred their care to a hospital, which specialized in cases like Gia’s. For the remainder of the pregnancy, they had bi-weekly ultrasounds and EKGs, which identified Gia had all four of the Tetralogy of Fallot defects as well as pulmonary atresia, a complete obstruction of the pulmonary valve that regulates blood flow in the heart.

In preparation for Gia’s birth, Michele and John scheduled an induction with Gia’s cardiologist and medical team for late March, but Gia had other plans. On March 5, 2020, she was born three weeks premature.

“Gia’s premature birth was a blessing because our parents were able to meet their first grandchild in person at the hospital. Within the following few days, the hospital shut down due to COVID. Had she come at the end of March, I would’ve been in delivery by myself,” Michele said.

Baby Gia in the PICUThe couple held Gia for about 30 seconds before she was whisked away to the NICU, where she was put on machines and medications to keep her alive. Her first operation was within 24 hours to place a stent in her artery. This procedure failed as Gia pushed the titanium steel out of her artery. Open-heart surgery was now required at day three of life to place a shunt in her heart. The shunt would be a temporary solution while doctors waited for her to gain the strength for a complete repair.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the hospital only allowed one visitor at a time. From March through May 2020, Michele and John took turns seeing their daughter in the PICU during the height of the pandemic and social distancing.

“On those kinds of nights that you would lean on your parents or sibling(s) for support, we couldn’t even see them. Who we saw were the doctors, nurses, janitors, and foodservice people – The last people you would think that would be supporting you during childbirth,” Michele reflected on the unlikely heroes who gave them comfort and strength on those late nights spent in the hospital.

After 59 days in the PICU, Gia went home in May. She got stronger day by day with medications, at-home nurses, and pulse-ox machines. Just shy of a month later, doctors determined she was strong enough for the full open-heart Tetralogy of Fallot repair.

Today, she is a bubbly and energetic toddler who recently celebrated her second birthday.Gia celebrates her 2nd birthday The only indication of her Tetralogy of Fallot is a faint scar where her repair was made, which her parents call her heart zipper.

While Gia will need repeat operations, her parents and doctors are hopeful that through new research and technology, future procedures will be less invasive.

For nearly 100 years, the American Heart Association (AHA) has been fighting heart disease and stroke and helping families thrive. Since 1949, the AHA has invested over $4.8 billion in research funding to save and improve lives. Funds raised by our generous supporters throughout the Greater Washington Region help millions of people like Gia celebrate more birthdays, fulfill more dreams, and share more hugs.

Learn more about our work in the greater DC area and connect with us at a local event.