HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — He may be too young for two front teeth, but not a healthy human heart.
Eleven-month-old Kaiden Bracken traded his mechanical heart for a real beating one last week, just in time for Christmas. The life-saving procedure came after an eight-month hospital stay while waiting for a donor.
He was the 18th child since 2010 to receive a heart transplant at Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital in Hollywood and the first to receive a heart from a donor with a different blood type.
"I am overwhelmed with happiness," Kaiden's mother, Kristen Bracken, 41, of Vero Beach, said Thursday. "His pulses are better, his coloring changed overnight, he's playing, he's smiling and laughing. He's coming around great."
With a tiny surgical mask looped over his little ears and clutching a pacifier, the strawberry blonde babe made his media debut Thursday afternoon. To tout his medical perseverance, Kaiden arrived wide-eyed to a round of applause from doctors, relatives and reporters. He raised and rhythmically pumped his right fist seemingly in response.
"It's really the very best Christmas gift that we all could get," Chris Mashburn, director of clinical programs for the hospital's Heart Institute said, her voice cracking with emotion. "Everyone grew to know him, love him and cheer him on, and hope we got that very important call that we prayed every day would come."
Kaiden underwent the six-hour heart transplant Dec. 8. On Wednesday, he was discharged from the hospital but will remain at the Conine Clubhouse on the hospital campus for a couple more weeks while undergoing final procedures and lab work.
Kaiden suffered from dilated cardiomyopathy, or an inability for his heart muscle to pump sufficiently.
"He was basically dying of this terrible heart condition," said Dr. Maryanne Chrisant, director of the hospital's pediatric cardiac transplant program.
Bracken said she was in the happy throes of new motherhood, delighted with her seemingly healthy 3-month-old, when on Good Friday she noticed his breathing was labored. She googled "baby breathing."
What she read online triggered a visit to the emergency room, where an X-ray showed Kaiden's heart was enlarged. Within hours, Bracken and Kaiden were en route to the renowned children's hospital in Hollywood.
In May, Kaiden received a mechanical Berlin heart, a circulatory device that increased his cardiac output, Chrisant said. The mechanical heart was surgically connected to his own.
In late May, Kaiden suffered a stroke, endangering his chances for a transplant.
When word came that a donor heart was available, it was from someone with type AB blood, not Kaiden's type A. Doctors devised a way to successfully transplant the incompatible heart.
Kaiden's mother lived at the hospital's Conine Clubhouse — free of charge — for the entire eight months he was in the hospital waiting for a heart.
"We feel really good about making sure our families are comfortable and they have a place to stay free of charge while they're going through this," said Kristin Cornell, the clubhouse's manager.
Now that Kaiden has been discharged from the hospital, he stays with his mother in her clubhouse room.
After eight months of sleeping on a recliner in the pediatric intensive care unit, Wednesday night was Bracken's first night in a real bed. Kaiden snoozed in a nearby crib.
"It was awesome," she said, Kaiden's cheek nestled against her chest.
Bracken now relishes the thought of taking Kaiden to grandma's house for Christmas. There, they'll gather with loved ones and the family dog, and perhaps she'll play piano for Kaiden for the first time.
"It's a little scary, obviously," Bracken said. "But I consider this Chapter 2."
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