For the first time in more than seven months, 1-year-old Valeria Ocampo’s heart beat on its own.
The baby’s family, along with her team of surgeons and nurses at UF Health Shands Hospital, were stunned when on April 2, Valeria’s Berlin Heart, the artificial heart pump that maintained blood flow to her heart, was successfully removed. The pump had kept her alive for nearly half of her life.
But by early March, hospital staff grew confident they could start weaning her off the Berlin Heart. Over the course of three weeks, doctors gradually decreased the machine’s pump rate, said cardiac surgeon Mark Bleiweis.
Valeria is UF Health’s first patient to ever come off the Berlin Heart, a device for end-stage heart failure. The machine fed four tubes into the different chambers of her heart and is normally a transition toward a heart transplant, Bleiweis said.
“It’s probably one of the greatest experiences in our group’s history,” he said. “She has been given a chance to live a normal life.”
Victoria Escobar, Valeria’s mother, said the road to healing has been stressful. Valeria, less than a year old, fought complications like strokes, seizures and a collapsed lung.
“It’s extremely painful for a parent to watch their child go through something like that,” Escobar said.
Since her youngest daughter was transferred to Shands, Escobar, 34, said she practically lived at the hospital, often sleeping on a hospital-provided sofa bed.
She said everyone agreed to be strong for Valeria, who rarely stopped smiling.
“She’s a very happy baby,” Escobar said.
When Valeria celebrated her first birthday on January 6, Escobar organized a photoshoot. She and her husband, Carlos Ocampo, and several nurses decorated the hospital bed with pink and gold pillows. They gave Valeria a pink dress and chocolate birthday cake — which Valeria dug into, covering her face and hands in frosting.
“I needed to keep that face smiling,” Escobar said. “That was my goal — keep that face smiling.”
Every day, Escobar and Ocampo clung to the hope that Valeria’s heart might improve, she said.
About 30 doctors, nurses, family and friends crowded around Valeria’s bed when the doctor stopped the artificial heart. Nearly everyone cried.
Escobar couldn’t believe Valeria’s heart was beating on its own. She wouldn’t have to see her daughter, only about eight pounds, hooked up to a machine the size of a small refrigerator anymore.
On April 13, Valeria left the hospital.
Escobar said even small things are more meaningful now.
During that first bath, Valeria was startled by the rushing water as her mother gingerly soaped over the ridge of newly formed scars.
“Those scars, I love them. I’m going to take care of them,” Escobar said. “Those are the proof of god’s miracle.”
Carlos Ocampo, left, and Victoria Escobar, right, kiss their 1-year-old Valeria Ocampo, who was released from UF Health Shands hospital last Friday.