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Big Birthday for a Little Girl

For a little girl, Océane McKenzie has experienced some big firsts in her life. Her first birthday — April 15, 2010 — is one of them. But the biggest is her claim to fame as the first Canadian to have successfully undergone fetal heart intervention. That happy first paved the way for so many others, like her first smile, her first reach for a toy and that first birthday.Océane McKenzie at one year and Dr. Greg Ryan with Océane shortly after her birth

“We’re incredibly proud of her,” says Océane’s mother, Vicki. “Now, a year later, I can say that I think she’ll be okay. If you’d asked me a year ago, I don’t think I could have said that.”

A year ago, Océane had already made medical history. Dr. Greg Ryan, Head of Mount Sinai’s Fetal Medicine Unit, with physicians at the Hospital for Sick Children, repaired a faulty heart valve while Océane was still in her mother’s womb. She had been diagnosed with Critical Aortic Stenosis, which causes a narrowing of the main outlet valve in the left ventricle, at 30 weeks’ gestation. Left untreated, the condition would likely have been fatal.

Described by Dr. Ryan as “minimally invasive for the mother and lifesaving for the baby,” the fetal intervention made it possible for Océane to thrive in utero for another four weeks. She was born at Mount Sinai on April 15, 2009. Since then, she has undergone numerous tests and procedures and there are more to come, including an aorta transplant within five to ten years.

Back home in Quebec, Océane’s schedule is busy with appointments for physical and speech therapy. At 12 lb. and not yet able to sit up on her own, a psychologist estimates her physical age at three months, but her mental age at closer to one year. “She’s just starting to grab toys,” says Vicki. “She’s not a big sleeper, but she’s finally started to nap in her crib instead of in my arms.”

Despite the challenges, Océane is “a happy girl,” says her mother. “She’s always smiling. She doesn’t laugh yet, but you can tell she wants to.” Small strokes and her heart problems have delayed her physical development, but she’s a sociable child and loves nothing more than being at the centre of family life with her mother, her father, Ian, and brothers Gavin and Owen, now 8 and 6.

Looking back at the events of early 2009, Vicki says, “it was the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced. But it’s made us stronger people. It wakes you up to what’s really important. Our boys experienced the sadness, and all that was offered in our time of need, and they know how incredible it was. They knew what she was facing and that she pulled through.

“I think back on our first conversation with Dr. Ryan,” she recalls. “He made us believe that this would be okay. As scary as it was, he made us believe that, whatever happens, it’s going to be all right.”

Since Océane’s pioneering fetal heart surgery, Dr. Ryan has performed two more successful such interventions.