Heart Transplant Brings Quality of Life to Young Gabriel

Lisa Basquez with her son, Gabriel, who received a heart transplant at Children's

Lisa Basquez is the picture of an ideal mother: protective, passionate and devoted to nurturing her children. She speaks calmly, gently rocks her daughter and patiently looks her son in the eyes when soothing his cranky mood. She is a tower of strength; she speaks her mind. She advocates for her children every moment, every day.

It seems unlikely Basquez could ever feel alone, scared or helpless. But that is exactly how she felt when, at 21 weeks pregnant with her first son, Gabriel, she learned he had a life-threatening heart condition.

“I remember everything from that day vividly,” Basquez recalls. “My ex-husband and I were playfully arguing about whether or not to learn the baby’s gender, when the mood suddenly changed.”

Basquez adds, “The ultrasound tech kept looking at the heart. She became very quiet and I had a feeling in my stomach that something was wrong.”

And then everything collapsed: Basquez’s unborn baby had hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a complicated congenital heart disorder brought on by an underdeveloped left ventricle. Her son might have to undergo up to four open-heart surgeries. Odds of survival were dismal. Relatives hesitated to throw a baby shower for a baby that might never live.

“I went from expecting a baby to fighting for a life,” she says.

Basquez had four choices: she could terminate the pregnancy, could birth the baby naturally and let him die naturally, have the baby undergo the Norwood procedure (which connects a single heart ventricle to the body’s circulatory system), or she could let surgeons attempt a heart transplant.

“I wanted to stay pregnant forever,” Basquez recalls. “As long as he was in the womb, he was fine. All the problems would start when he was on his own.”

Basquez, the epitome of steadfastness, of faith and hope, was terrified.

Heart transplant led Basquez to Children’s

Basquez chose the heart transplant, a decision that led her to Children's Hospital Colorado and to a team of experts who would use every resource and skill in an attempt to save her baby.

Gabriel was born on Jan. 24, 2007. The first person Basquez’s family called was DeeDee Gilbert, Gabriel’s transplant coordinator, a nurse practitioner at Children’s.

As soon as Gilbert received the call, she readied teams at Children’s for Gabriel’s transfer. Within 24 hours of Gabriel’s birth, a Flight for Life team whisked him to Children’s where the team immediately worked to place him on the heart transplant list.

Once at Children’s, staff worked “around the clock” to stabilize him, according to Basquez, ensuring he was healthy enough for a transplant. Meanwhile, nurses included Basquez in Gabriel’s daily care. They taught her how to read his stats, to understand his medication, and how to swaddle him.

“That was the most important thing,” Basquez says. “I got to be his mom even while he was in the hospital.”

Gabriel’s team

As Basquez continues, it’s her memories of the people at Children’s that seem to tell the story.

She remembers the parking attendant who greeted her every day she came to the hospital, his smile and wave a welcome home.

Basquez recalls the tearful nurse who handed her the phone and good news, 13 days after Gabriel’s birth. She remembers Darcy, the nurse on the other end, telling her, ‘There is a heart available. Dr. Campbell and the team are on their way to get it.’

There was another nurse who sprinted to the parking garage to find Basquez’s brother and sister-in-law – who’d not yet met Gabriel – and escorted them to Gabriel’s room just seconds before he left for surgery.

“We were on a first-name basis with everyone at Children’s, from the parking lot attendant to the CEO,” Basquez remembers.

Then there was Dr. Max Mitchell, Gabriel’s cardiothoracic surgeon. After listing the risks of surgery and assuring Basquez they were doing the right thing, he said, “I will not leave until I know Gabriel’s stable.”

Hours later, on her way to see Gabriel post-surgery, Basquez spotted Dr. Mitchell. She noticed he had changed into his brown loafers, a sign he was going home.

“The sight of his house shoes was so comforting,” Basquez says. “It meant Gabriel was okay.”

Most of all, there was Gilbert, who was Basquez’s first point of contact with Children’s and with whom Basquez still chats regularly. Gilbert is one of several transplant coordinators at the Heart Institute.

“An important aspect of our role is to develop relationships with families,” Gilbert says. “We want to make sure they don’t feel lost in the shuffle.”

Transplant at The Heart Institute

Gabriel lives today, four years after his transplant, in large part because of his team at Children’s, which included everyone from a cardiologist to a social worker to a pharmacist to a neonatologist to a cath lab nurse.

Unique among pediatric heart care centers, Children’s Heart Institute offers a comprehensive team for each child.

“Patients often touch every part of the Heart Institute,” says Gilbert, who praises teamwork among her colleagues. She explains how the team encourages cooperation and autonomy between members.

“We all get along fantastic,” says Gilbert, who, as a nurse, leads her team. “We try to make it seamless. We trust each other and we have a common goal.”

That common goal manifests in children like Gabriel: “We’re doing this transplant to not only give your child a life, but a quality of life,” says Gilbert. “It makes me feel so happy when I see those successes. You can see that you added something to this child’s life.”

This positive disposition travels from Gilbert to her team and on to their patients, their strength and optimism reason enough to give children and their families the will to keep fighting – Basquez and Gabriel included.

Today, Gabriel lives

Four years later, Basquez watches Gabriel wander independently during one of the family’s frequent trips to the Denver Aquarium, his curiosity pulling him this way and that.

“All of life happens between an inhale and exhale,” she says. “I want my kids to say, ‘Mom made sure we had a great life.’”

Gabriel’s quality of life – the one Gilbert and the transplant team worked diligently to preserve – is well intact, as his mother hoped for all along.

Today, Gabriel absorbs his surroundings and rubs his hands together in quiet excitement. “Sharks,” he says more to himself than anyone else.

Basquez watches Gabriel from a distance, once more an example of patience, trust, love, terrified no more.

“The thing that’s so cool about this experience is that you really get presented with a choice,” Basquez says. “You can sit here and cry the blues or you deal with it with some measure of grace and get something out of it.”

Basquez has let that philosophy guide her life, both personally and professionally. Currently, she practices mental health counseling, through a program called Gabriel’s Gift, helping families cope with a child’s congenital heart defect.