Last Thanksgiving, Lily Davis was 6 weeks old and on a ventilator in the hospital. Her mother, Gaby, spent her favorite holiday in a neonatal intensive care unit.
"We saw so many pictures on social media of babies at the Thanksgiving table, and our baby was on a breathing tube," Gaby said. "The NICU staff made a cut-out turkey and hearts and hung them over her bed."
Gaby had a tough pregnancy, and though Lily was born four weeks early, the delivery went smoothly. Lily didn't even need to stay in the NICU; she went home when Gaby did and was right on schedule with her growth and development.
Then came the night when Lily's heart rate skyrocketed to 280 beats per minute, and Gaby and her husband, Jake, rushed their baby to the hospital.
To put that number into perspective, next time you're in the middle of a strenuous workout, or maybe after you've just climbed a flight or two of stairs, or perhaps while in the throes of a heart-pounding scary movie, check your pulse. It might be racing at 150 beats per minute, or 160, or maybe even 180. Now add 100 beats to that. That's what Lily was experiencing – understandably terrifying her parents and perplexing her medical team.
"Five doctors and then six were trying protocol after protocol, but nothing was working," Gaby said. "Her heart rate was going up, going down. My husband and I were hardly able to breathe as we watched our 6-week-old daughter fight for her life."
Lily had a type of irregular heartbeat – or arrhythmia – called supraventricular tachycardia. Although heart disease runs in Gaby's family, doctors said this case had nothing to do with heredity.
Doctors tried a variety of medications. They weren't working.
Finally, something did. That's when Lily's electrophysiologist offered what Gaby calls "the best news ever."
"He said where she had been when we first brought her in was life-threatening. But where she is now is not," Gaby said.
The stress during those two weeks was unfathomable, the unknowns a wilderness. Even now, Gaby's mother, Felicia Friedland, can hardly talk without crying about all the family endured. Yet through her own pain and helplessly watching that of her daughter, Felicia and her husband – Gaby's dad, Jerry – also saw a strength emerge from their daughter.
"I was blown away," Felicia said. "She was trying to help everybody around her and rose to this level I never ever had seen her reach."
Gaby is forthright about her feelings during those weeks as well as those that linger – stopping her in her tracks as she remembers what the whole family went through. Yet through everything, she remembers to be grateful.
"We were so blessed to have amazing doctors and nurses," Gaby said. "My parents and brother were there, too. Our rabbi was coming every day. When things were so critical, we asked on social media, 'Can everyone please light a candle for Lily?' It went viral. People were sending us photos of themselves lighting candles."
The Los Angeles couple brought Lily home and monitored her closely. It was tough; Gaby and Jake underwent counseling to deal with the stress, and Gaby took a mental health break from her job as co-host of the "Hits 1 LA with Tony Fly and Symon" show on SiriusXM. But they found strength in each other and in their faith.
By the time Lily was 6 months old, she was down from seven medications to two; she doesn't take any now. The day she took her last medicine, she also took her first steps. Doctors had told the family that 75% of babies diagnosed with her form of arrhythmia will outgrow it by age 1, which Lily seems to have done. Her parents and grandparents are finally able to breathe again.
"The other night," Gaby said, "I went to the grocery store at 7:30 p.m. after we'd gotten Lily to bed, and I bought flowers. Those little moments, and of course just being with our little girl, are helping me find beauty in life again."
Such beauty will manifest itself on Thanksgiving when Lily and her parents travel to Gaby's parents' home to spend the holiday with their extended family.
This time, Lily will be in all those social media photos and videos. Gaby imagines her daughter giggling as she makes a macaroni and cheese mess of the casserole Gaby always brings to the table, saying "mama" and "dada," and being totally oblivious to the fear and uncertainty that gripped her family a year ago.
"Her first Thanksgiving was really tough and changed us forever," Gaby said. "But I hope to inspire parents who are going through hard times like we were to know that they can get through it, and they will get through it. To see Lily at the table this year will be so surreal. Just thinking about it brings tears to my eyes."
Stories From the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.