This Gqeberha baby survived heart surgery a month after he was born weighing just 760g

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Baby Willem with his proud parents, Carl and Willene Snyman. (Photo: Nina Claasen Visual Storytelling)
Baby Willem with his proud parents, Carl and Willene Snyman. (Photo: Nina Claasen Visual Storytelling)

All she wanted to do when her baby was born was to take him home, cradle him and sing him to sleep. But that wasn’t an option for Willene Snyman. Her son, Willem, was born prematurely after being in the womb for just 26 weeks.

At 760 grams, he weighed a little less than two bricks of butter. Born so prematurely, baby Willem’s lungs weren’t fully developed plus he had a defective heart. Now, after a four-hour operation, his overjoyed mother has her wish. “It felt surreal to take him home and hold him,” Willene says. 

Willem in hospital at just four days old.
Willem in hospital at just four days old. (Photo: Supplied)

Willem’s heart surgery was performed at Life St George’s Hospital in Gqeberha where the tiny tot has spent the bulk of his young life so far. He was born at the hospital on 22 December, 14 weeks before he was scheduled to make his way into the world. Willene (27) and her husband, Carl Snyman (33), worried their firstborn wouldn’t make it and Willem spent his first few days hooked up to a ventilator to help him breathe. 

“It was an up and down journey for about three weeks,” Carl says.

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The couple were relieved when they knew what was wrong with their son. Doctors diagnosed the little boy with patent ductus arteriosus (PDA), an opening between two blood vessels leading from the heart. 

When medication prescribed to treat his condition didn’t work, baby Willem was referred to the hospital’s paediatric cardiologist. He was then diagnosed with aortic coarctation, which is a narrowing or constriction of the aorta. “This all happened when he weighed under 1kg,” Carl says.

To save his life, baby Willem had to have heart surgery and on 26 January an operation was performed to correct the PDA and aortic coarctation. His parents spent that morning pacing the hospital passages, but they had nothing to worry about because Willem proved to be a fighter.

His mom and dad says he has adjusted well and is g
His mom and dad says he has adjusted well and is growing everyday. (Photo: Supplied)

After 120 days in hospital, he was finally discharged last month. His parents say he’s recovering well and going from strength to strength. Willem now weighs a healthy 4,3kg and does all the things babies his age do. 

“It was tough seeing him lying in the incubator after the operation,” Carl says, “but the journey made us stronger.” 

“He really is our miracle,” Willene adds.

While still in the womb, a baby’s blood doesn’t need to go to the lungs to be oxygenated. The ductus arteriosus is an opening that allows the blood to bypass  circulation to the lungs. However, after birth the blood must receive oxygen in the lungs and this opening should close naturally. If the ductus arteriosus is still open (or patent, in medical terms) the blood may miss this vital step of circulation. The open hole is called the patent ductus arteriosus.

What causes it?
Failure of the ductus to close is common in premature infants but rare in full-term babies. In most children, the cause of PDA isn't known. Some children have other heart defects along with the PDA.

How does it affect development?
Infants may have trouble feeding and growing at a normal rate. Left untreated, the blood vessels in the lungs could come under pressure due to receiving more blood than is normal. Over time it may cause permanent damage to these blood vessels, resulting in breathlessness and breathing difficulties.

How is it treated?
Most children can have the PDA closed with a procedure whereby a catheter is inserted into a blood vessel in the leg to reach the heart and the PDA. A coil or alternative device is then moved through the catheter into the PDA like a plug. 


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