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12 unforgettable children's hospital photos that will touch your heart

When a baby is about to endure hours of surgery to get a new heart, there are no words. Sometimes, you need a photo to tell the whole story.
/ Source: TODAY

When a baby is about to endure hours of surgery to get a new heart, there are no words. Sometimes, you need a photo to tell the whole story.

Wendy and Chad Larson share a quiet moment with their 4-month-old daughter Katelyn just before her heart-transplant surgery. "She was just smiling and cooing. It was amazing…. It was just like, ‘Mom, dad, I’m OK.’ It just gave us so much peace knowing that she felt good that morning," her mom said.Courtesy Barb Roessner/Children’s Hospital and Medical Center, Omaha, Nebraska

The powerful image of Wendy and Chad Larson cuddling with their daughter Katelyn just before she was wheeled into the operating room for a life-saving heart transplant at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska, is part of the 2015 Children's Hospitals Photo Exhibit.

The collection of pictures shows some of the most intense, harrowing, hopeful and inspiring moments in the lives of the country’s littlest patients.

Daniel, a patient at Cincinnati Children’s, joins caregivers on rounds.Courtesy Gino de Grandis/Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, Cincinnati, Ohio

The Children's Hospital Association received 250 photos in all for the exhibit — captured by hospital staff photographers from across the country — and asked five judges to pick the most compelling 50. The resulting collection will go on display on Capitol Hill in Washington in June.

With her stylish leg in full swing, Baylee climbs the hospital lobby play structure before her prosthetic appointment.Courtesy Julia Serat/Shriners Hospitals for Children – Northern California, Sacramento, California

“You’re just blown away by the stories that are there,” said Gillian Ray, a spokeswoman for the Children's Hospital Association, noting the judges and the staff at times wept as they went through the photos.

“You just feel for a second what these parents must be feeling, what these physicians and nurses must be feeling when they take care of these kids.”

Lane, a 3-year-old neurosurgery patient, cries as a nurse carries him into the operating room.Courtesy Cat Outzen/The Children’s Hospital at Sacred Heart, Pensacola, Florida

In the Larsons' photo, “We’re just kind of saying good-bye because I had no idea whether her heart would beat or not,” Wendy Larson, who lives in Odebolt, Iowa, told TODAY Parents. “We didn’t know if we’d see her again alive or not.”

At 3 months old, Katelyn was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition that left her heart enlarged and so weak that a machine had to take over circulating her blood. The pump’s red tubes are prominent in the photo, as is Katelyn’s sweet expression. The little girl was smiling and cooing all morning, as if letting her parents know she would be OK, her mom said.

Play is a critical part of speech and motor development. Children with complex medical conditions have limited opportunities to engage in play, so this boy is taking part in music therapy and instrument exploration to facilitate speech and language goals.Courtesy Russell Lee/The Cleveland Clinic Foundation, Cleveland, Ohio

Barb Roessner, the hospital’s heart transplant program coordinator, took the picture on Sept. 12, 2013, the same day she had called the Larsons to let them know a donor heart had become available for Katelyn. They wouldn’t see their daughter for the next nine hours as doctors performed the surgery.

Now almost 2, Katelyn is thriving with her new heart.

“She is the healthiest person in our family,” her mom said. “She’s just amazing; you would never even know her struggles.”

Here are more photos from the Children's Hospital Association exhibit:

Dr. Darryl Miles carefully adjusts a new mesh bandage around the spot where a central line was inserted into the arm of 3-month-old Riley Moss, a patient in the PICU.Courtesy Juan Pulido/Children’s Health, Dallas, Texas
Mom Elise Mata holds her conjoined twin girls in the neonatal intensive care unit as they await separation surgery.Courtesy Allen Kramer/Texas Children’s Hospital Houston, Texas
Heroes come in small packages.Courtesy Julie Stefaniak/Women & Children’s Hospital of Buffalo, Buffalo, New York
Mileika thoughtfully examines the next piece of her structure as she works to hone dexterity in her full appendage.Courtesy Christian Berg/Shriners Hospitals for Children, Shreveport, Louisiana
Great Dane Summit visits Saniyah. Fuzzy therapists provide patients a sense of normalcy, reduce pain and are a great distraction from the stress of being hospitalized.Courtesy Cynthia Brodoway Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, Wilmington, Delaware
Samantha Klein gets help from a nurse as her son Liam enjoys a bath in the NICU. Born prematurely with kidney and autoimmune issues, Liam is now thriving.Courtesy John Maniaci/American Family Children’s Hospital, Madison, Wisconsin
Eleven-year old Jaxson hugs his mother on his first day back in the hospital. After three and a half years of being cancer free, Jaxson has renewed his fight against neuroblastoma.Courtesy John Maniaci/American Family Children’s Hospital, Madison, Wisconsin

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This article was originally published Mar. 30, 2015 at 4:41 p.m. ET.