The fight for his life
Coarctation of the aorta can be fatal in babies if not treated quickly
On February 1, 2004 Elizabeth Ellard gave birth to her first child, a boy, at Samitivej Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand. He was named Saiburi after the hospital in the very south of Thailand where his father, Gordon Ellard, was born. But instead of rejoicing in the arrival of their brand new baby, Elizabeth and Gordon began the most important fight of their lives—the fight to keep their son alive. Saiburi had difficulty breathing almost immediately after birth and struggled to latch on to breastfeed. “Saiburi was born by C-section and suffered from wet lung, as most C-section babies do. As the wet lung dried up his breathing was still labored, so when he was trying to breastfeed I could see he was out of breath. The second afternoon I was trying to feed him and I noticed he couldn’t breathe very well,” said Elizabeth.
Elizabeth called in Saiburi’s pediatrician, Dr Buppha Phaosawasdi, and she immediately asked a cardiologist from Chulalongkorn Hospital to evaluate Saiburi. He was diagnosed with coarctation of the aorta, which is the narrowing of the aorta, the large blood vessel responsible for carrying oxygen-rich blood to the body. Saiburi needed life-saving surgery immediately, but the Ellards, being far from home and unprepared for this worst-case scenario, weren’t sure where to take their day-old son for treatment.
Gordon remembered that a year earlier their friends Ted and Lisa Sherman had had a baby boy at the same hospital who had the same heart problem, and though they considered returning to America for treatment, they decided to take their baby to Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok at the recommendation of Ruben Toral (aka Medeguy), who was working there at the time. It turned out to be the best decision of their lives.
So, with Ruben’s help, two-day-old Saiburi Ellard was admitted into Bumrungrad Hospital. Elizabeth recalls, “When we arrived at Bumrungrad with our first child, two days old, we were immediately given a meeting with Dr Preecha Laohakunakorn and Dr Samphant Ponvilawan, who gave us the horrible news that they would need to perform open heart surgery that evening if Saiburi was to survive the next day. Dr Preecha’s calm, caring manner helped us to get through the next two weeks. There was never a time he was too busy to talk things through with us. He generally seemed to care about Saiburi.”
The two-day old baby underwent open heart surgery that saved his life. Unfortunately, two months later, Saiburi’s symptoms recurred. Once again he returned to Bumrungrad Hospital and his surgeons, who performed a balloon angioplasty to widen the narrowed aorta, a stop-gap treatment before another open heart surgery could be performed. In August of 2004 Saiburi’s restenosis—the repeat of the narrowing—became critical and he received a second balloon angioplasty, which failed.
Because the coarctation of the aorta is uncommon in Asian children and found more in Western children, Dr. Preecha, along with Elizabeth and Gordon, decided that the best place for Saiburi’s next surgery would be the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, Australia. There Dr Christian Brizard, who specialized in co-arc surgery, performed Saiburi’s final open heart surgery.
Saiburi Ellard is now seven years old. His mother said, “Saiburi is a gorgeous child. He is funny, very intelligent, very kind-natured, and doing extremely well at school. He has a quirky sense of humor and is always making us laugh. He is an avid reader and loves to swim. Physically he is very fit and none of the operations seem to have affected his ability to keep up with other children his age.”
Saiburi patiently tolerates his annual heart check-ups with the very same doctor that operated on his tiny heart all those years ago, Dr Preecha. “And seven years on, [Dr Preecha] always has a smile for him and is amazed about how he has grown and how handsome he is, just like a relative would that hasn’t seen him in a while,” said Elizabeth.
The Ellards have a second child, a four-year-old whirlwind named Harriet. Though in utero her heart appeared to “look like cheese,” as her father Gordon recalled, it was found to be perfectly normal after she was born.
Remembering Saiburi’s first year of life, his mother concluded, “…it was a happy one. We were thrilled to have a baby boy. We were very worried about him, but we also realized that any time he could not be with us so we did enjoy him.”
Facts about coarctation of the aorta
- Coarctation of the aorta is congenital.
- It is more common in those with other genetic conditions, such as Turner Syndrome.
- Left untreated, the coarctation of the aorta can lead to high blood pressure, stroke, rupture of the aorta, and premature coronary artery disease.
- Open-heart surgery is the only permanent treatment for the coarctation of the aorta.
Related outside links:
Read more Shared Experiences
Do you have a unique patient story?
Share your experiences with us! Send us a message using the feedback form below.