Rifle couple stays strong as their newborn son recovers from open-heart surgery in Denver
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Approximately 30 weeks into their second pregnancy, Rifle residents Nate and Ariel Mellon knew something was different this time around.
Nate said his wife’s OB-GYN Cynthia Hall, from A Center for Women’s Care in Glenwood Springs, noticed Ariel was carrying a little bigger than usual, measuring 3 or 4 weeks ahead of schedule.
“They sent her to a specialist at Valley View Hospital, through an ultrasound and echocardiogram to look at his heart, they noticed something wasn’t right,” Nate said.
The Mellons were referred to a specialist in Denver for a second echocardiogram, and doctors diagnosed the Mellon’s unborn son with a condition called Tetralogy of Fallot.
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According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, Tetralogy of Fallot is a rare condition caused by a combination of four heart defects present at birth.
Nate said doctors told them that many children with Tetralogy of Fallot also have DiGeorge syndrome, but they couldn’t confirm it without more tests.
DiGeorge syndrome, also know as 22q11.2, is a rare disorder caused when a small part of chromosome 22 is missing.
The Mellons were advised if Ariel went into labor in Glenwood, it would mean a life flight to St. Luke’s in Denver.
On Sept. 3, the Mellons made the decision to have Ariel move to Denver in order to be closer to specialists.
Ariel and Cassidy, the Mellons’ 3-year-old daughter, moved in with Nate’s sister who lives in Denver, while Nate stayed and worked and kept the family home in order in Rifle.
Ariel carried the pregnancy to 39 weeks, before having a planned C-section Sept. 26.
“Up to that point everything was moving along as expected, nothing above and beyond what we already knew with his heart,” Nate said.
“He came out looking pretty strong, we heard him cry three little baby cries, we were pretty optimistic at the time. But when they cut his cord, his heart rate dropped – he was unable to maintain his oxygen levels.”
Doctors put a breathing tube in during the first few minutes of young Elliott’s life because he couldn’t breathe on his own.
“They got the breathing tube in and in a sense stabilized him before they could get him to the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit), and the rest of the monitors, IVs, to give him the care he needed,” Nate said.
“In Elliott’s case he had an absent pulmonary valve as well, so with the Tetralogy, he had a hole between the septum’s (wall) of his heart and his ventricles,” Nate said.
After going back and forth on a few options, the Mellons said doctors identified that pulmonary issues were causing dilation of the artery and it was pushing down on Elliott’s airway. Doctors recommended he undergo surgery.
“We went into it knowing he was going to have to have an open heart surgery at some point, but we didn’t know it would be so soon after his birth.” Nate said.
They went ahead with open-heart surgery on the 11th day of young Elliott’s life.
According to Nate, Elliott had a rough few days after the nearly 13-hour surgery, but doctors were optimistic because the initial surgery went really well.
“When they do these heart procedures they leave the chest cavity open, but cover it with dressings for four days,” Nate said.
“We could physically see his heart beating under the dressings, it was incredible.”
A LONG ROAD TO RECOVERY
Now at nearly a month old, Elliott remains hospitalized and doctors continue to get him to breathe on his own.
“I’ve had to stay in a real positive mindset, to keep myself going and stay strong for my family,” Ariel said. “Trying to go day by day.”
Elliott has made some good strides since the surgery, practicing breathing with a little assistance from the ventilator.
“We definitely have a long road ahead of us, they haven’t given us a timeline yet, our goal as a family is to hopefully have him home by Thanksgiving,” Nate said.
Doctors told Nate that Elliott’s stay could be shortened or lengthened at any time, and he has three major hurdles to get through.
Those hurdles include getting him off the ventilator, feeding on his own, and making sure there are no recurring seizures.
“Those are the three major things right now that we have to get checked off our list,” Nate said.
The Mellons were advised that Elliott would eventually have to have another open-heart procedure between 1 and 3 years-old to increase the size of the pulmonary valve for his growing heart, and another when he is 7-10 years old.
“We are looking at another 1-2 open heart surgeries and subsequent valve replacements basically until he is through puberty and they know his heart is fully developed,“ Nate said.
Tuesday evening Nate reported that doctors removed the ventilator over the weekend and Elliott is breathing on his own with the help of a nasal cannula, which is applying pressure and support to help keep his lungs expanded.
KEEPING FAMILY CLOSE
Ariel, and Cassidy are continuing to stay in Denver. A little over two-and-a-half weeks ago they moved into the Ronald McDonald House, which is two blocks from the hospital.
“We wanted to be a lot closer, with winter coming I didn’t want my wife to have to drive across town and fight traffic and weather,” Nate said.
Ariel said she visits Elliott 3-4 times a day.
“I try to spend as much time with him as possible, keeping a nice balance with our daughter so we can try to keep things as normal as possible for her,” Ariel said. “It’s definitely been challenging to keep a good balance between everything.”
After two weeks off, Nate, who is a registered nurse at E. Dene Moore Care Center, returned to work and makes the commute to Denver every Friday to be close to his family.
“Trying to maintain a household and make sure they are taken care of while driving back and forth has been a heavy load on me. But the hardest thing for me, is that my little guy has had to suffer for the first few weeks of his life, and could potentially be battling multiple things when he grows up,” Nate said.
Nate said he has been extremely blessed with members of the E. Dene Moore Care Center, which has donated PTO to Nate as part of the companies PTO donation program.
THE SUPPORT OF THE COMMUNITY
“Our parents have been a tremendous support for us, we have friends that went over and took care of our house (in Rifle) and winterizing it for us,” Ariel said.
“Nate has been here and just the whole team at the hospital, all the doctors and nurses, and the Ronald McDonald House have been amazing. If we didn’t have support from our family, friends and community, honestly I don’t know how we would do it without any of them.”
Ariel, who is a receptionist for R&A Electric in Carbondale, has been on maternity leave since early September. She said her employer has been very accommodating.
She plans to return to work in January, but that depends on Elliott’s care needs.
“We have to take that as it comes,” Ariel said.
With hospital bills stacking up Nate’s mother Kristen Tarufelli started a GoFundMe page, and Nate and Ariel also opened an account in Elliott’s name at the Bank of Colorado.
“We are beyond blessed with all of the support. It’s pretty amazing how the community in Denver and in Rifle have reached out to try and support in any way they can,” Ariel said.
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Wayne Hall took a job as an air traffic controller at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport in 2003 thinking he would stay for a short time. Instead he stayed for nearly 17 years and was promoted up to the position of air traffic manager. He reflected on the experience upon retirement.