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After heart surgery, 3 girls with Down syndrome share 1st birthday cake smash

Harper, Mae and Catherine all underwent major heart surgeries at the same hospital during their first few months of life.
/ Source: TODAY

Harper, Mae and Catherine recently celebrated their first birthday together with the sweetest cake smash.

It was a happy celebration for the girls, who were born on three consecutive days and who all have Down syndrome, after a challenging year. Suffering from congenital heart defects, they were in the cardiac ICU of Boston Children’s Hospital at the same time not long after birth, awaiting open-heart surgery.

"I think it will be important for the girls growing up that they're not the only ones going through a hard time," said Catherine’s mom, Aimee Kadehjian.Nicole Starr Photography for Julia's Way

While heart defects are common among children with Down syndrome, the mothers of these three girls didn't anticipate their daughters going through their first surgeries so soon.

“Usually they try to wait until the babies are 3 months old (before scheduling the open-heart surgery),” Michele McAdoo-Kalnicki, Harper’s mother, told TODAY. “But none of them made it that far.”

McAdoo-Kalnicki explained that after six weeks of Harper failing to gain weight — a common symptom of a congenital heart defect — she had no choice but to opt for surgery.

Baby Mae went through a similar situation.

"The first birthday is always very special and worthy of celebrating," said Mae's mom, Cristina Colanti.Nicole Starr Photography and Julia's Way

“The hardest part was that there were no timelines,” Mae’s mother, Cristina Colanti, told TODAY. “We knew prenatally that Mae had Down syndrome and that she would need heart surgery in her first six months of life, but we had no idea that it would be that much time in the hospital.”

Harper, Mae and Catherine all spent weeks in the same ward in Boston Children’s Hospital.

“We were all in the hospital at the same time on the same floor but we didn’t know,” Aimee Kadehjian, Catherine’s mom, told TODAY. “Cate had her open-heart surgery at 10 weeks and spent 80 days in the hospital.”

While McAdoo-Kalnicki, Colanti and Kadehjian never ran into one another in the halls of Boston Children’s Hospital, they were brought together by a nonprofit called Julia’s Way for a photo shoot with Nicole Starr Photography. The shoot focused on Down syndrome babies and breastfeeding, and aimed to show that the children are capable of doing normal things.

It was when the shoot came together that the moms learned of each other’s journeys. They were stunned by the similarities.

"I don't even remember seeing them in the hospital," said McAdoo-Kalnicki. "But we were all in the cardiac ICU at the same time."Nicole Starr Photography and Julia's Way

“It’s a good support system to have someone who’s been through a very similar experience as you,” Kadehjian told TODAY. “And to just be able to see how far they’ve come — it’s nice to have someone who knows exactly what they went through to get there.”

The moms have also helped each other by recommending different therapies and doctors.

“It’s been nice to be able to open up and to talk to them on a different level,” said Colanti. “Overcoming those things and knowing someone who’s gone through almost the exact same thing — it’s just a really unique bond and relationship. Other people just don’t understand at the same level.

"It really is important to have someone who knows what you're going through," said Kadehjian.Nicole Starr Photography and Julia's Way

During their first meeting the moms decided to stay in touch and do something to celebrate the girls’ first birthday. Luckily, they already knew a photographer: Starr.

“It was really important for all of us — the first birthday is always very special and worthy of celebrating,” said Colanti. “But our girls had gone through more in their first year than some people go through in their entire life.”

They celebrated with the sweet cake smash that Starr named the “Three of Hearts.” It included all the tutus and pearls the girls could want.

“We’re just so emotional that we could make it to this point,” said Colanti. “It’s a celebration of our kids.”