Close to Our Hearts: A Young Warrior

At six days old, Cooper Whitehurst had open-heart surgery. By age 10, he was inspiring legislation to save other babies with similar heart defects.

DLM_American Heart Association

Photography by Jeff Nelson

“My family’s story starts 10 years ago in a rural Wisconsin hospital, the night my son, Cooper, was born,” says Gretchen Whitehurst. “He entered the world completely blue. He was motionless and not breathing, with just a faint heart rate. My husband and I watched absolutely helplessly as the doctor and nurse performed CPR on him. We assumed the worst. Then, we heard the most amazing scream in the world.”

Cooper was alive and, as far as the doctor could tell, well. “The doctor told us the scary part was over and to go enjoy our newborn son,” Whitehurst said. “So we totally did.”

When a nurse came to get Cooper a couple hours later for routine tests, all still looked good. Whitehurst and her husband settled in for a nap—until some kind of parental intuition woke them both. “I remember sitting straight up and yelling at my husband that something was wrong with Cooper and he needed to find out what was going on,” Whitehurst says. “When he got to the newborn nursery, our life changed forever.”

Cooper’s aorta was nearly closed, and blood was get ting through by the drop—if it was getting through at all. He had a condition called coarctation of the aorta. “The doctors sent Cooper to a bigger hospital for tests. Not only did he have a severe congenital aorta defect, but his left ventricle was working only at about 30 percent of what it should, he had a small whole in his heart, and more.”

When he was six days old, Cooper had open-heart surgery (at a third, more specialized hospital). “Those surgery hours went by so slowly,” recalls Whitehurst, whose family moved to Colorado in 2013.

“Finally, the surgeon came out and said, ‘I told you all the worst-case scenarios before. But after surgery, I can tell you that his case is the best-case scenario.‘”

Now, Whitehurst says, “we have a beautiful, healthy 10-year-old child who runs around like crazy and plays basketball and baseball and has climbed fourteeners. He loves math and, as of now, wants to be a sports statistician when he grows up.

“He hasn’t had any more procedures, though he will have to at some point. He doesn’t take any medication, nor does he have any restrictions when it comes to things like sports.”

With the help of Cooper’s story, legislation has passed in W isconsin and Colorado to save other newborns with heart defects. “We realized that at some point some organization or person had fought for kids with special hearts like Cooper and we needed to do the same.

“I once asked Coop (who has been to former Gov. Hickenlooper’s house and personally signed things into law) if he understands what he’s doing and he said, ‘Yeah. I’m saving babies with special hearts.’”

With the help of Cooper’s story, legislation has passed in Wisconsin and Colorado to save other newborns with heart defects.

71.1 percent: Percentage decrease in deaths from cardiovascular disease from 1968 to 2016

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