Corsicana Daily Sun, Corsicana, Texas

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February 22, 2013

‘Ultimate Gift’: Heart issue at birth has never stopped Corey Harper

Corsicana — Gary Harper strolled down the hall at Baylor Hospital, eager to catch a glimpse of his newborn son, Corey. He scanned the nursery, but didn’t see him, he of bright red hair.

“I’m looking for him, looking for him,” Gary recalled, “and I saw two nurses. They had these machines that seemed like they had thousands of wires attached to them. Then I saw the little red head. I just thought they were checking him out thoroughly.

“They looked up, and I could tell by the look on their faces something was wrong.”

Corey was born with Tetralogy of Fallot, and had a ventricular septal defect and pulmonary stenosis. He had a hole in his heart that was causing blood flow issues, as the valve wasn’t closing properly.

Doctors knew he’d need surgery at some point. That point came at 6 months, when he suffered an episode of blue baby syndrome, or a blue spell. It occurs when the lungs are not getting enough blood from the heart.

It was Mother’s Day, 1994. And it was time.

“He was so healthy otherwise,” Gary said. “Most (heart patient) babies are tiny. He was gigantic. ...

“They would have waited until his first birthday or so, until the blue spell.”

Like most children, Corey recovered quickly. He grew up, lived his life, knew about the surgery because he saw the evidence every day in the form of a long scar on his chest.

There were other reminders. Athletic, strong, Corey never was quite the runner his friends were.

“I always had trouble with cardio work,” said Corey, now a 19-year-old freshman at Navarro College. “I couldn’t finish a mile. I maybe did it once, but I usually had to stop.”

“His doctors always told us his body would tell him when to slow down,” his mother Grace said.

But Corey grew up rather normal, other than the shortness of breath. There were also times of mild pain, nothing he couldn’t handle though, he said. If it persisted or intensified, he’d take a break, rest, let it work its way out of his chest.

He was really never in danger. Since the surgery as a baby, Corey has annual checkups. But in the summer of 2011 as Corey approached his senior year at Corsicana High School, his cardiologist, Dr. Ted Carlson, said the time had come again. The pulmonary valve was again causing issues, allowing blood to flow back into the right ventricle, especially while Corey was laying down, Gary said.

The heart was only getting 50 percent of the oxygen it needed as a result, Gary said.

The family had two options: summer surgery to replace the valve after his senior year, or Nov. 16. Corey’s 18th birthday. He took the earliest date, and it was a good omen. Two weeks before surgery, a grandmother he considered a third parent passed away. And Corey became more and more fatigued. Short walks would leave him gasping for air. He thought he was drained because of the emotional loss, and his heart condition.

A second open heart surgery on his birthday was OK with him.

“It was the ultimate gift, the gift of life,” he said.

If there was any apprehension from him, it was just to get it over with.

“They had me on about 15 pills (when I first came home) and I had no pain,” Corey said. “After that first day, I started laying off them. They were making me constipated. That was not a good idea. I had the worst pain in the world that night and I couldn’t breathe.

“I decided to take the pills the next day.”

There was also baseball. He hoped to make it back for his senior season, and he did. It took about two months to really recover and feel good again, he said. During some of that period of time, he was home-schooled by Nancy Duren. Except for physics. Teacher David Kasprzyk worked with Corey to make sure his studies there didn’t fall behind.

Life is much better today. He’s back running. He’s healthy. The pains he had lived with throughout his life are gone for the most part.

He’s by no stretch out of the woods. Corey will continue to have annual check-ups, and there is a chance he could face another surgery.

“That valve is not everlasting,” Gary said. “They don’t know if it will have to be (replaced) in five years or 35 years. It’s possible they could never have to do it again.”

As medicine continues to progress, 19 years after Corey’s original surgery, that first surgery is enough, Gary said. Babies today probably won’t have to face a second open heart procedure.

Corey shouldn’t have to face a third.

“It would be through a catheter,” Corey said, with a smile.

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