Kids' health

Girl, 6, critical after long-awaited heart transplant

June 24, 2013 at 1:55 PM ET

Video: Ann and Ed Bartlinski already had eight children at home when they adopted Teresa, then 3, from China, who needed urgent help due to heart and lung issues. Teresa is now in “extremely critical” condition after a heart transplant last week, but her parents say she’s “a fighter.” NBC’s Tom Costello reports.

It seemed like the perfect happy ending to an incredibly poignant story. Teresa Bartlinski, the 6-year-old adopted from China who literally had a broken heart, received a transplant after waiting for more than two years for a matching organ.

But a few hours after the surgery last Monday Teresa went into cardiac arrest. She’s spent the last week on a heart-lung machine while doctors try to help her.

Ed and Ann Bartlinski knew what they were getting into when they spotted Teresa at an orphanage in China. “Our whole intent was to bring her home, let her know the love of a family,” Ann told TODAY’s Tom Costello. “We knew she was terminally ill.”

Teresa was born with a shortened arm and heart damage that resulted from a congenital defect named hypoplastic left heart syndrome. Children with the syndrome end up with an underdeveloped left ventricle. In Teresa’s case, that also led to permanently damaged lungs, which made the little girl frail.

It was that fragility that first called out to the Bartlinskis, who already had eight kids back in Catonsville, Md. -- four of them adopted. They named their new daughter Teresa after Mother Teresa, a role model for the family who believe that special needs children in orphanages are often overlooked.

Doctors feared that Teresa would never be well enough for a transplant, but the little girl thrived with the Bartlinski family. She’s been learning ballet and English, her oxygen supply trailing behind her all the time.

Last Monday when the family was at the beach, the call they were all waiting for finally came from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia: Doctors said they had a donor heart for Teresa.

At first it seemed that everything had gone well. Teresa’s new heart started to beat once it was connected up and shocked into action. But a few hours later the little girl went into cardiac arrest.

Doctors performed CPR for 30 minutes, before finally putting her on a heart-lung machine.

On Monday, surgeons will try repairs to help Teresa's new heart function properly.

In the original transplant surgery doctors kept a piece of her old very small atrium to connect with the new heart, according to the family’s website. Because Teresa’s atrium was so tiny, the blood vessels were too narrow to handle the increased blood flow required by the donor heart, her family reported. "Surgery will start around 12 on Monday" to repair Teresa's left atrium, according to the family's website. "It should last around 4-6 hours."

While her condition has been deemed extremely critical, the Bartlinskis haven’t given up hope.

“We know Teresa’s a fighter,” Ed told Costello. “She’s got the strongest will of any human I’ve seen. She’s clearly a saint in our eyes. She’s just a beautiful little angel.”

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