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Sacramento 4-year-old raising awareness for congenital heart defects

February 7-14 is Congenital Heart Defect week. 40,000 babies are born with a congenital heart defect in the U.S.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — About 40,000 babies are born with a congenital heart defect in the U.S. Congenital heart defects occur when the heart doesn't develop as it should in the womb. One in 4 of those babies born with it will need surgery in the first year of life.

Sacramento 4-year-old Ariel Hernandez was born with down syndrome and was found to have a defect that's common in children with the disorder. After she was born she spent more than 40 days in the NICU and doctors monitored her heart until she was strong enough for surgery. At two years old she was ready. 

"The second she left my arms and the nurses took her away that was really, really, hard. Then when she disappeared through the door, then it comes to 'ok, she's just back there this is surgery again', so your emotions kind of become numb. Then you know that they know what they're doing, but again, it's surgery and her heart is involved, so even the best surgery can go wrong, but she was in wonderful hands," said Ariel's mom, Kristal Hernandez.

Sutter Pediatric Cardiologist and American Heart Association Volunteer Dr. James A. Hill performed Ariel's surgery. He said she was the first person west of the Mississippi to get it.

"Her's was an innovative technique that our team has learned, and it's coming through a very small incision on the right side of the chest. This was originally sort of pioneered in Brazil. They're very worried about image and scars and, how you look especially with swimsuits on. So, this was invented so that the scar could be hidden under a swimsuit if that's important to you. It's a small incision and also the important thing is the recovery time is lower too," Hill said. 

Ariel only had to spend four days in the hospital. Now at four years old, she's thriving. 

"She probably could have spent three, but they just wanted to watch her a little bit, but she was ready to go I mean, she was standing up in her crib," Hernandez said. "Two weeks after she had heart surgery, she actually shot a Walmart commercial, nobody knew that she had heart surgery."

After surgery Hernandez said she could tell Ariel had a lot more energy.

"Being that she's a twin, they were definitely playing around a lot more, which is nice that the incision was under her arm instead of her chest, so I didn't have to worry as much about her getting injured or her ribs, you know, healing," Hernandez said.

Now she makes an annual visit with Dr. Hill and spends her time raising awareness as an American Heart Association Ambassador. She and her mom travel around Sacramento and the world speaking on kids' heart health and down syndrome advocacy. 

February 7-14 is congenital heart defect week, if you would like to donate to help further research you can do that on this website.

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