Tough as Emery: Heart transplant patient update

Baby Emery had a heart transplant in 2021 and continues to beat the odds.

At 18 weeks pregnant, Brittany Walden learned she was going to be a “heart mom.” Her baby’s growing heart showed some abnormalities. After months of Brittany meeting with specialists and more scans, Emery Walden was born in October 2020 with a heart defect called hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS) with pulmonary stenosis. HLHS is a congenital heart defect, which is the most common type of birth defect.

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Brittany spent most of her time at the hospital with Emery. Her husband, Tyler, with help from Tyler’s parents and Brittany’s parents, cared for Emery’s older siblings, Parker and Henry.

“It’s different being the mom of a sick child and a healthy child,” Brittany said. “I am both!”

After many surgeries, being on and off a ventilator, and an intense array of medications, Emery had a heart transplant in May 2021.

“I got the call after 209 days of being on the transplant list,” Brittany said. “They asked if I would accept a donor heart for my son. I said yes without hesitation, but then I was a nervous wreck.”

The months following the transplant were full of ups and downs as Emery’s body adjusted to the new heart. The Walden family credits their faith and the team at Norton Children’s Hospital with helping them through the difficulties.

In July 2021, the family got the best news of all. After 253 days in the hospital, all the surgeries and a new heart, Emery went home. Brittany learned how to care for her son at home — checking feeding tubes, administering medication and much more. As the family left the hospital unit that had been “home” for almost nine months, the staff lined the hallway to bid farewell to little Emery.

Sarah J. Wilkens, M.D., pediatric cardiologist with Norton Children’s Heart Institute, affiliated with the UofL School of medicine, supervised Emery’s hospital care throughout his long stay.

“Not being able to see him every day was a little sad,” Dr. Wilkens said about having him go home. “It made my day feel very different.”

Transplants are tricky, and Emery bounced in and out of the hospital until in early August 2021 there was a snag.

“I could hear him getting bad,” Brittany said. “All night he was coughing, and it sounded junky and thick.”

After seeing Emery in the morning, the doctors decided to do another major open heart surgery on the baby.

With HLHS and pulmonary stenosis, a transplant doesn’t address both issues.

“We still need to work on the pulmonary stenosis,” Dr. Wilkens said. “Due to the way the new heart settled in the chest, the only fix for the stenosis was to do surgery to correct it.”
Unfortunately, surgeons may not know exactly what they need to do until they are in the operating room with the patient.

After some delays, surgery in 2021 relieved pressure on Emery’s lungs from his pulmonary artery. Emery spent several months in the intensive care unit on machines to help him breathe before returning home.

“There have been a few hiccups,” Brittany said. “He was showing signs of rejection in May 2022, and there have been a few illnesses like COVID. Several infusions and medications later, he’s on the mend.”  

Brittany is thankful for every day she gets with her son.

“He’s our tough miracle baby,” Brittany said.

She shares her heart mom journey online with friends and family, updating regularly with photos at Tough as Emery. The family continues to take each day as it comes and takes every chance to love on little Emery.