Having spent half of her young life in the hospital, six-month-old Eliana Mendez of Palm Beach Gardens will go home with her parents this week after doctors discharge her from Holtz Children’s Hospital at Jackson Memorial in Miami, where surgeons from the University of Miami transplanted her heart.
“I feel relief, happy to be going home, and be able to enjoy her, be home, so she can enjoy her toys, her room and we can continue on with our life,” Alejandra Mendez said of her daughter’s successful heart transplant. “We haven't lived a normal life in here at the hospital.”
The Mendez family’s journey to a new heart began in June, when Eliana fell ill at three months old and became lethargic. Her parents, Alejandra and Abdiel Mendez, took their daughter to a pediatrician who diagnosed a virus.
But later that night, Alejandra Mendez said, Eliana’s symptoms worsened. The baby vomited a lot, and she had difficulty breathing.
We haven’t lived a normal life.
Alejandra Mendez, 28, of Palm Beach Gardens
The Mendezes took Eliana to the emergency room at St. Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach. Doctors there quickly diagnosed Eliana with a life-threatening condition called dilated cardiomyopathy, which causes the chambers of the heart to enlarge and weaken.
The following morning, at risk of heart failure, Eliana was airlifted to Holtz Children’s Hospital at Jackson Memorial, where pediatric cardiologists with the University of Miami Health System evaluated the infant and determined she needed a heart transplant.
“It was crazy,” recalled Alejandra Mendez. “So many things were going through my mind at the time.”
The Mendez family waited two months, with Eliana in the intensive care unit, for a matching donor to be found.
The call came on Aug. 21, and that same day a team from the Miami Transplant Institute, working with Eliot Rosenkranz, a pediatric cardiologist, transplanted a new heart into Eliana.
“We are very grateful,’’ Alejandra Mendez said, “because it could have taken longer, and it didn't.”
But Eliana’s new heart was still weak after the surgery, and doctors attached her for five days to a type of mechanical lung and heart. Eliana is currently fed through a gastronomy tube inserted through the abdomen.
Paolo Rusconi, a UM pediatric cardiologist, also recommended genetic testing to determine if Eliana’s cardiomyopathy is the inherited form of the disease. The UHealth team at Jackson is one of 11 sites in the country participating in a national research project that uses advanced genetic testing to determine the cause of cardiomyopathy, according to a hospital press release.
Results of the genetic test are pending, but once completed they may help the Mendezes find out whether other family members might be at risk of cardiomyopathy, and whether Eliana carries a gene that could be passed on to her children.
For a young family with plans for more children, Alejandra Mendez said, the results of the genetic test may influence their decision going forward.
“If it’s not inherited,’’ she said, “then it gives us peace of mind.”