New parents Debra and Zak Jarabat were overjoyed by the birth of their first child, Noah, a beautiful baby boy born with all his tiny fingers and toes perfectly formed, and his every breath a precious moment for his adoring parents. However, within days of bringing Noah home, their excitement grew into concern because his breathing became labored and sounded strange.
At the time, the young couple was living in Washington, D.C., and they made an appointment with a pediatrician who suggested that Noah’s odd breathing was due to his crib being near a window. But, Debra’s instincts told her something about her baby’s health was not quite right. Her fears were realized when she was giving Noah a bath and noticed his legs were blue. She placed Noah on the bed, now fully panicked by how motionless and limp her baby boy had become.
She and Zak rushed Noah to the nearest hospital, where he was stabilized before being transferred to Children’s National Medical Center. Noah was diagnosed with hypoplastic left heart syndrome — a congenital heart defect where the left side of the heart is underdeveloped and unable to pump blood normally. At only 11 days old Noah underwent his first heart surgery; the procedure was successful and would serve as a stepping stone toward Debra and Zak’s hope for Noah to enjoy a normal life.
By the time Noah was three, the family had relocated to Gainesville, Florida, to accommodate a new job Zak had accepted. Before making the move, Debra and Zak researched Gainesville and the quality of care available in the area. They discovered some of the nation’s top doctors treating complex heart conditions in children were available at UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital.
The expert pediatric heart care available at UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital would become crucial to Noah, when at 5 years old he underwent a second heart surgery, this time with Mark Bleiweis, MD, one of the nation’s top pediatric heart surgeons and the director of the UF Health Congenital Heart Center.
For most of his early childhood, Noah visited UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital every month, and he and his family grew closer to the staff and physicians, feeling as though the hospital’s team was their team — supporting and advocating for them throughout the entire process.
“The staff really held our hands over all of those years,” Debra said. “They really showed us that they not only cared about Noah, but they cared about our family as well.”
As Noah approached his pre-teen years, he became interested in sports and enjoyed playing basketball with his friends. He realized that it took him longer than the other kids to catch his breath, and describes feeling deeply breathless during exertion, as if there was a belt cinched tightly around his chest.
When Noah and his parents went back to UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital for answers, they were met with a team of dedicated, caring physicians and staff who took the time to explain everything, from details about the recommended procedure, to medication prescriptions and what to expect after surgery. Now a young teenager, Noah was more interested in his health, taking time to ask questions of the doctors and staff.
Noah enjoyed having the physicians speak directly to him, which helped him feel comfortable throughout the entire process of surgery and healing. The comfort Noah felt was evident in his upbeat, chipper demeanor going into his last surgery at 13 years old, where he was high-fiving the staff while being wheeled to the operating room.
When asked if he was scared to go into surgery, Noah’s answer was, “No. I know I’m getting the best care.” Dr. Bleiweis performed the Ross procedure on Noah, replacing Noah’s abnormal aortic valve with his pulmonary valve to enable the heart to pump blood more effectively. Following surgery, Noah took charge of his health by eating healthy foods, walking and keeping a positive attitude.
Today, 17-year-old Noah is a student at Santa Fe College, with hopes of enrolling in medical school at the University of Florida to pursue a career in health care, just like the doctors who he says helped give him a new outlook on life and a “very bright future.”
— By Ashley Strickland