The greatest gift

Born with a congenital heart defect, Samiya was diagnosed with congestive heart failure at just 4 months old. Her only hope of survival: a heart transplant. But would it come in time?

A weary LaCria Hicks stood on the sidewalk just beyond the entrance of N.C. Children’s Hospital that unforgettable September night. Her daughter, Samiya, just two days past her first birthday, occupied a room in the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) just a couple of floors up. Troubled by the baby’s worsening condition, LaCria had been unable to tear herself away from her daughter's bedside and missed the final shuttle to the Ronald McDonald House.

As guest services personnel secured alternative transport for her, the beleaguered mother reflected on an earlier conversation with one of the critical care physicians amidst the evening’s chaos.

“Be straight with me,” she had implored him just past midnight. They had been waiting for more than six months. Was there hope they would find a heart in time?

In a moment she will never forget, the doctor had taken her hand in his and, eyes locked on hers, said, “She is going to be a stubborn teenager.” And with that, she found renewed faith.

“The doctors haven’t lost hope, so I haven’t lost hope,” she thought to herself as she waited for transport. And then her mobile phone rang.

A heart defect

LaCria’s pregnancy had been considered high risk from the start given a previous history of gestational diabetes. She and husband, Chris, felt reassured by the extra monitoring until LaCria’s four-month ultrasound revealed some anomalies.

Samiya spent her first birthday in the PICU.
The couple was referred to the UNC Children’s Heart Center, where Blair Robinson, MD, did a fetal echocardiogram. He confirmed a narrowing of the baby’s aortic arch along with a hole in her heart.

“Dr. Robinson was great,” says LaCria. “He explained Samiya’s heart defects and the course of treatment. He said she would need three surgeries, the first at 5 days old and the next would be around 6 months, and then another when she was like 5 or 6.”

LaCria’s pregnancy became difficult. She developed gestational diabetes again and then pre-eclampsia, a complication of pregnancy whose hallmarks are high blood pressure and protein in the urine. The dangerous condition can compromise organ function and threaten both the mother and unborn baby’s health, delivery of the baby being the only cure. As such, Samiya was born a couple weeks shy of full term.  

“She spent a day in the NICU and then was transferred to the PICU in anticipation of her heart surgery, which went as anticipated,” recounts LaCria. “We stayed about three weeks post-op. She went home with a feeding tube, so we had some complex care issues, but things were going about how we expected.”

But by the time Samiya was 4 months old, LaCria became concerned by some frightening symptoms. Samiya was vomiting frequently, and she had bouts when her face would turn blue. Dr. Robinson did an echocardiogram, which revealed a terrifying development. Samiya was suffering from congestive heart failure.

“It horrifying. I went into panic mode. I didn’t really understand what it all meant,” says LaCria.

Samiya was admitted to the PICU. When surgical interventions didn’t improve her condition, her care team presented another option: a heart transplant.

“That was very hard and painful decision for us,” recalls LaCria. “I am a Christian woman. How can you pray for a heart? How can you pray for another person’s child to die? I had a hard time reconciling that, but there were no other options. Even on the transplant list, there weren’t any guarantees. Would she be strong enough? I finally surrendered. God, if it is your will, your will done.”

The ensuing months were difficult on the family. The family, LaCria, Chris, and Samiya’s two older siblings, Briana and Brandon, spent the summer at the Ronald McDonald House. When school started back up again, Chris spent his days in Chapel Hill at the hospital with Samiya, while LaCria went to work and ran back and forth with the older kids. She visited Samiya every day.

“It’s a complete waiting game,” LaCria remembers of those months waiting for a heart transplant. “We didn’t know when it was going to come, if it was going to come. At the beginning, it didn’t occur to me that she wasn’t going to make it that far. But then her condition began to deteriorate. Her oxygen levels were dropping for no reason. She had been through so much, so much suffering.”

The phone call

“The doctors haven’t lost hope, so I haven’t lost hope,” was the last thought to cross LaCria’s mind before her mobile phone rang that September night, just two days past Samiya’s first birthday.

A year after her transplant, Samiya returned to participate in the Radiothon.
“Mrs. Hicks?” said the man who identified himself as a member of the transplant team. “I just want you to know, we found a heart for Samiya.”

“I just busted out screaming,” recalls LaCria. “Tears and yelling and jumping around. He’s still talking, telling more, and I’m not hearing him.”

The transplant surgery took 10 hours. Michael Mill, MD, was Samiya’s transplant surgeon.

“Dr. Mill, I swear that man is heaven sent,” says LaCria. “I never felt so confident. He just told me this is the perfect time, this is meant to me—lots of positive affirmation that everything was going to be okay.”

“When we saw him again after the operation, you could tell everyone was tired, that they had given it their all,” remembers LaCria. “And Dr. Mill, he stayed afterwards and prayed with my mom.”

Samiya spent three months in the hospital following the transplant surgery and was discharged week before Christmas.

“It was beautiful, our own Christmas miracle,” says LaCria.

Now 4 years old, Samiya is a happy child, a natural comedienne who loves to play and dance, says her mom.

“She goes to playground and comes back with five friends,” beams LaCria. “She never met a stranger.”

“Maybe it has to do with all the time she spent in the hospital,” continues LaCria, “all the people who became part of our extended family. They mean the world to us—Dr. Robinson, Dr. Mill, Dr. [Cheri] Hanson and Dr. [Benny] Joyner in the PICU. And the nurses, I call them the ‘unspoken champions.’ Too many to count, they are our heroes. They’ve given us the greatest gift.”

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