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New Jersey Mom Has Premature Baby, Then Open Heart Surgery

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JERSEY CITY, N.J. (AP) After he brought his girlfriend Jessica to the emergency room at the Jersey City Medical Center on Oct. 26 because she was having chest pains, 29-year-old Raul Torres spent the next five days praying for a miracle.

"I was terrified. I thought I was going to lose the two most important things in my life," said Torres, whose girlfriend, Jessica Garcia, 30, was seven month pregnant. The couple live in Jersey City.

Jessica had a buildup of fluid around her heart, putting pressure on her lungs and causing extreme pain. A CT scan revealed she had a leaking aorta, the main artery leading from the heart.

The condition was brought on by a combination of high blood pressure and congenital weaknesses in the lining of the blood vessels. The aorta began to leak, like an over-pressurized hose, according to Dr. Preston Hupart, the cardiologist who diagnosed Jessica.

She needed open heart surgery if she was to live. The complex procedure required surgeons to replace the heart valve leading to the aorta with a prosthetic, replacing part of the aorta with skin grafted from her leg, and a double bypass procedure on her heart just to keep the blood pumping.

The surgeons were skeptical that she would survive the operation.

"The mortality rate for patients receiving the operation is something like 30 percent," said Dr. Ziad Hanhan, the cardiothoracic surgeon who operated on Jessica.

Because Jessica's body had to be cooled to 60 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent brain damage during the surgery, the baby had to be delivered first - two months premature.

"With the added delivery of her baby, her odds of survival dropped to below 50 percent," the doctor said.

"We were losing our minds," Raul said. "We went crazy. We thought we were going to lose both of them. (Jessica) was just saying 'Save the baby, save the baby.'"

To Jessica, everything before the operation is a blur. She didn't even have time to worry about herself, she said.

"I don't remember anything. I was so busy crying and holding my belly that I could pay no mind," she said.

The baby, named Nathaniel, was delivered within an hour of that morning's grim diagnosis, and taken to the neonatal intensive-care unit where a breathing apparatus kept his lungs working.

"We delivered the baby right there in the surgical room by Cesarean section," said Dr. Ahmed Yousrey, who delivered the boy. "I don't think that's been done before."

Tough as it may be to believe, that was the easy part.

The open heart surgery, a 14-hour procedure, was next. Several times during the operation, Hanhan thought he would lose Jessica to blood loss. The procedure required the use of blood thinners, which made her Cesarean incision a potentially lethal source of bleeding.

Jessica slipped into a coma for five days and suffered a minor heart attack. While baby Nathaniel was getting better, Raul was crushed by the possibility of losing Jessica.

Raul said he had planned to propose to Jessica on Dec. 10, her birthday, but decided to do it in the hospital if she survived the operation.

Finally, Jessica woke up to the elation of her family and Raul. Moments after awakening, Raul got on a knee and asked her to marry him.

"She couldn't say yes," Raul laughed. "But when I opened the box, she nodded and started crying."

Jessica is expected to make a full recovery, and Nathaniel is gaining weight. JCMC staff members are calling both of them miracles, an unlikely outcome to a potential tragedy.

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