Rynli Receives a New Heart as Children’s Marks its 400th Transplant

Born with dilated cardiomyopathy and adopted from China at 10 months old, feisty Rynli faced frequent setbacks as she waited for a heart transplant. With her surgery, the Children’s Heart Center reached a major milestone.

little girl playing in hospital bed

When Rynli was adopted from China at 10 months old, her parents, Tamara and Justin Harris, knew they had a long and difficult road ahead of them. Born with dilated cardiomyopathy, Rynli would need frequent medical attention and, ultimately, a heart transplant for the best chance at a full and healthy life.

“We were told that we might have to wait up to a year [for a transplant],” Tamara said. “We were terrified she might not make it that long.”

Tamara and Justin, along with their five other children, found strength and confidence for the journey not only in their faith, but also in the cardiac team at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

Established in 1988, the Children’s Heart Center is one of the largest pediatric heart transplant programs in the country, with top-10 transplant volumes each year. The team has performed more pediatric heart transplants than any other children’s hospital in the Southeast—and with Rynli’s surgery, the program completed its 400th heart transplant.

“It is humbling to participate in our 400th pediatric heart transplant,” said Fawwaz Shaw, MD, Surgical Director of the Advanced Cardiac Therapies Program, who performed Rynli’s surgery. “This transplant also has great personal meaning to me because of the remarkable journey of the resilient patient involved. She has shown such determination and courage in her short life and through her example has made all on our team stronger.”

After the Harrises brought Rynli from China to Dahlonega, Ga., she had about 10 normal months before her health took a serious turn for the worse. Rynli was admitted to the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit (CICU) at Children’s and placed on the transplant list. She endured setback after setback—a brain bleed, sepsis, kidney failure, a common cold that led to her being put on a ventilator, among others—but defied the odds and kept rebounding. Tamara says she lost count of how many times Dr. Shaw saved Rynli’s life.

They finally got the call they had been hoping for after more than seven months of waiting: Rynli would get a new heart the next day.

“There are no words to describe the feeling of hearing your child will live because somebody, in the midst of the most unbearable grief and pain, chose to give the gift of life,” Tamara said. “It was overwhelming.”

Rynli came through the surgery with flying colors—pink, in particular. Her parents hadn’t realized how gray her skin had been until after she received her new heart. Her transplant marked the start of yet another journey: weaning off a feeding tube and relearning how to eat, building strength to be able to sit and walk independently again, and eventually rejoining her family.

For Chad Mao, MD, Medical Director of the Advanced Cardiac Therapies Program at Children’s, Rynli’s story highlights the values and strengths of the program. “She represents our commitment to help all children, irrespective of race, religion or socioeconomic background,” Dr. Mao said.

Rynli’s path has not been easy, but her resilience and feistiness have helped carry her through a challenging course of treatment. At the Children’s Heart Center, we know that the hard work doesn’t stop with the transplant. Our surgeons, cardiac nurses, rehabilitation specialists, pharmacists and a host of multidisciplinary subspecialists will be there with Rynli every step of the way. And with more than 50 pediatric cardiologists in more than 20 locations across the state, the Heart Center’s outpatient cilnics will be able to provide specialized monitoring and treatment to Rynli closer to home.

“We care for some of the sickest and most complicated patients in the Heart Center. When all other options have failed, we step forward to bring hope to children and their families,” Dr. Mao said. “400 times, this program has given children a second chance, and sometimes a third chance, at life.”

As the largest cardiac program in the Southeast and one of the five largest pediatric heart centers in the nation, the Children's Healthcare of Atlanta Heart Center provides exceptional treatment to infants, children and teenagers who have complex heart defects.

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