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Triple play - Jace's Heart Journey

February 04, 2019

When Jace's diagnosis went from one heart defect to three, ACH’s cardiology team rose to the challenge 

By Jennifer Barnett Reed 

The news was scary enough the first time Jonathan and Cristin Atha met with the cardiology team at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. Cristin was 20 weeks pregnant, and an ultrasound showed her baby boy had a serious congenital heart defect called tricuspid atresia. The doctors had a plan, though, and their confidence put the Fayetteville couple at ease. 

Then right before baby Jace was born, the news got much worse. Jace didn’t just have one major congenital heart defect — he had three.  

“This was something none of the cardiologists had seen before — all three of these conditions in one child,” Jonathan says.  

Thankfully, the Athas had a world-class team on their side, and that team got to work. “There were several conferences with the whole cardiology team to determine how to solve all three of these conditions without doing extra surgeries,” Jonathan says.  

When Cristin went into labor in August 2011, the ACH Cardiology team sprang into action. The Angel One ambulance team was waiting at UAMS to stabilize Jace and transport him immediately to ACH Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Jonathan followed. 

“They quickly pulled me into a room and explained what was going to happen in the next 24 hours or so,” he says. “I remember Dr. Thomas Best and Dr. Ronnie Collins telling me I needed to take as many pictures as my camera could hold.” 

Over the next nine days, Jace stayed in the NICU and then the cardiac intensive care unit, having tests and procedures done in preparation for the first of three planned surgeries. 

“Everywhere you walked in Arkansas Children’s you were greeted with a hug,” Cristin says. “They treat the babies like kings or queens, and they treated our family the same way.” 

During Jace’s first surgery, when he was nine days old, surgeons corrected his two additional heart defects while they completed the first step in correcting his tricuspid atresia.  

“The surgeon came in and explained everything,” Cristin says. “He had one of those pens that writes in a lot of colors and he drags down the colors he wants to use to draw the diagram of what he’ll do once he’s in there. It’s scary to hear, but he tells you like it is: ‘Here’s what my plan is. Are there risks? Absolutely. But here’s what my plan is.’”  

Jace had access to the expert care he needed to survive his unique combination of heart problems. He made it through that first surgery, a second right after Christmas 2011, and his third and final operation in July 2014. He’s now 8 years old, and doing better than anyone expected. He only requires yearly checkups with ACH’s cardiologists. 

“He’s great now,” Cristin says. “He’s a vibrant young man, and he hasn’t met a stranger.” 

The Athas said they wanted to be Ambassadors for Arkansas Children’s because they wanted to share the story of the amazing care Jace received, and they want to support other families who are facing their own scary news. 

“We want to let people know how wonderful Arkansas Children’s is,” Cristin says. “You’re not going to find anybody who cares about your child more than they do.”

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