By Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press
MONTREAL – By all accounts, Panagiotis Baltzis’s five-month-old heart was broken beyond repair.
But then something shocking happened – while attached to a mechanical heart and with a transplant seemingly inevitable, the little scrapper’s own ticker began to pick up the slack and started working properly again.
Doctors say young Panagiotis, just a few weeks shy of his first birthday, is one of the very few in the world to have made a full recovery after being hooked up to a Berlin Heart and not having a transplant.
The army of Montreal doctors and nurses who helped the tot along the way gathered to recount the tale with Panagiotis’s parents on Friday.
They are all calling his recovery nothing short of a medical miracle.
Dr. Charles Rohlicek, a cardiologist at the Montreal Children’s Hospital who was on call the night that Panagiotis was brought in, said the pint-sized infant with a shock of brown hair paid him a visit last week.
“He came to my clinic and he was saying, ‘mama’,” Rohlicek said.
“This for a baby who, on the first night I saw him, I thought he might die.”
The infant’s condition deteriorated quickly after being admitted to hospital last Dec. 18 after his pediatrician had concerns the youngster wasn’t growing or putting on enough weight.
To his parent’s shock, doctors who first examined Panagiotis told them he was suffering from acute congestive heart failure and that his life was hanging by a thread.
Medications failed to stop an abnormal, rapid heart beat that was making the youngster very sick.
Within two weeks of being admitted, his heart condition worsened and the parents were given “five minutes” to decide whether to put their son on a heart-lung machine which could potentially mean that Panagiotis would need a transplant.
His parents said they weren’t ready to see their son hooked up to the machine and if he’d had more time to research it, Athanasios Baltzis said he might have said no.
“I remember walking in when they put him on the machine and falling on my knees,” recounted Baltzis as he choked back tears.
“The first thing that went through my mind is, ‘What have I done to this little baby?’
“It took my wife about four days to walk in because I wouldn’t let her. It was just visually hard to see.”
After seven days on the heart-lung machine, doctors made the decision to put Panagiotis on the Berlin Heart, a ventricular pump generally used as a bridge to a transplant.
The youngster survived the surgery but there was no heart available for transplant.
After a dozen days on the artificial heart, something astounding happened. Panagiotis’s own heart began to beat again – and normally.
“The intention was to bridge this child for a heart transplant but now we were facing a situation where the left ventricle appeared normal,” said Dr. Renzo Cecere, a cardiac surgeon.
“We had the option of (removing) the Berlin Heart and letting the child live on his own heart.”
But Cecere said there was no way of knowing how the tot would react and re-installing the Berlin Heart or the heart-lung machine would be very difficult.
The installation of the mechanical heart also causes significant damage and is often regarded as a one-way ticket to a transplant.
But on Jan. 24, the Berlin Heart was removed, just 37 days after the baby had arrived in hospital.
And on Feb. 19, Panagiotis went home to celebrate Christmas in front of a dried-up Christmas tree.
“He wasn’t supposed to get off the Berlin Heart – there are very few reported cases in this age group – we’re talking a smattering, less than 10,” said Rohlicek.
“He’s behaving like a normal one-year-old guy. It’s beyond me, but here he is. ”
Panagiotis remains on medication to control his heart rhythm and some subsequent surgeries will be necessary, but for the most part he is doing well.
The playful youngster earned a number of nicknames during his time in hospital where some staff took to calling him “The Rock” because of his resiliency.
He will celebrate his first birthday at the end of the month and his mother Nadia Valerio said it would have a Superman theme – and justifiably so.
Meanwhile doctors say they’ll keep a close watch on Panagiotis.
“I have a tremendous responsibility because everyone at the hospital knows this guy and I have to keep him well until he is at least 18 years of age,” joked Rohlicek.
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