Baby's enlarged heart discovered by chance after pregnant mom's fall

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg, American Heart Association News

Zoe Corrigan, now 23, had open-heart surgery at 5 days old. (Photo courtesy of the Corrigan family)
Zoe Corrigan, now 23, had open-heart surgery at 5 days old. (Photo courtesy of the Corrigan family)

At seven months pregnant, Debi Corrigan was shopping for spring flowers at a Wichita, Kansas, garden center when she took a tumble.

She protected her belly, landing left arm first, but shattered her elbow so badly that doctors implanted a rod in her arm. Her elbow throbbed, but otherwise, she felt fine, aside from the usual aches and pains during one's last trimester.

Just to be extra cautious, her doctor suggested doing another ultrasound of the baby.

The sonographer looked at the images and said, "We've got a problem."

"You mean with my elbow?" she said.

"No, with your baby."

The baby's heart was larger than it should be. It wasn't clear why. Debi and her husband, Brian Corrigan, didn't understand. Their baby had looked perfectly healthy on imaging just two months before.

Over the next month, doctors closely monitored Debi. They decided the best place for her to give birth was at a hospital almost three hours away in Kansas City, Missouri – and 10 minutes from a children's hospital where the baby could be treated.

Zoe was born by cesarean section in late June 2000, a month before she was due. In Greek – Debi's family is from Greece – the name Zoe means "life."

Debi didn't get to hold her newborn, and there wasn't time to take baby footprints.

Zoe had an echocardiogram, a test that looks at how flood is flowing through the heart. Then Brian rode with her in an ambulance to the children's hospital. Zoe went straight to the neonatal intensive care unit.

Zoe had an aortic aneurysm, a ballooned-out section of her aorta. Some people are born with aneurysms, which happen when part of an artery wall weakens. Doctors didn't know the cause of Zoe's. Blood was also leaking into the left side of her heart.

She had another condition, one known as a water hammer pulse. It's a forceful pulse often seen when blood leaks back into the left ventricle. It's also called Corrigan's pulse.

During meetings with doctors, one noticed Brian's last name.

"Do you know your family history?" the doctor asked.

Brian did. It was a remarkable coincidence: His ancestor, European doctor Sir Dominic John Corrigan was the one who discovered water hammer pulse in the 1800s.

At 5 days old, Zoe had surgery on her thumb-sized heart to repair the aneurysm and stem the leaking blood. It was successful. She stayed in the ICU for several weeks. When Debi held her for the first time, both were still healing from their respective surgeries.

Debi (left) and Brian Corrigan holding newborn Zoe during her recovery from open-heart surgery. (Photo courtesy of the Corrigan family)
Debi (left) and Brian Corrigan holding newborn Zoe during her recovery from open-heart surgery. (Photo courtesy of the Corrigan family)

At home, on top of the normal challenges of having a newborn – plus Zoe's 14-year-old brother, Christian – Debi and Brian gave Zoe three daily medicines for a year. They brought her to the pediatrician every few days to make sure she was gaining weight.

As Zoe got older, her doctor said high-impact sports were too risky. Debi worried about developmental delays. But Zoe thrived.

She took up golf and excelled in the arts. Zoe took ballet, tap and jazz, did competitive show choir and musical theater. One of her first roles was as a munchkin in a community theater production of "The Wizard of Oz." She's had roles in "Sweeney Todd" and "Into the Woods," too. In high school, she won a prestigious musical theater award.

She also volunteered with the American Heart Association and has participated in Heart Walks with her family to raise awareness of heart conditions.

Yet it was only when Zoe was working on her college application essays that she fully explored the drama surrounding the first days of her life.

"That's when I understood the gravity and the odds of my surgery," Zoe said.

Now 23, Zoe has a business degree from Georgetown University and is working in Washington D.C. at a bank as a credit analyst.

Zoe Corrigan on a trip to Greece. (Photo courtesy of the Corrigan family)
Zoe Corrigan on a trip to Greece. (Photo courtesy of the Corrigan family)

The only reminders of her heart surgery are the faded scar on her sternum, her blood pressure medication and yearly cardiologist appointments. Her doctor monitors her still slightly leaky valve. Zoe stays active by walking and doing yoga.

"On the surface you wouldn't be able to tell I had this heart issue," she said. "I feel so fortunate and grateful that I've been able to live a pretty normal life. There's no one look of what heart disease looks like, no age, no one-size-fits-all."

Also reminding Zoe and her parents of the lifesaving care she received are necklaces Debi's mother, Zoe's "Yiayia," made for the whole family to commemorate Zoe's birth and recovery. The cross pendants have "Zoe" printed on them in Greek.

"Zoe was our little miracle baby," Debi said. "She's always had such a positive attitude, and today she's doing very, very well."

Zoe Corrigan as a young child being held by her Yiayia. (Photo courtesy of the Corrigan family)
Zoe Corrigan being held by her "Yiayia." (Photo courtesy of the Corrigan family)

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