A Mesa couple’s love story includes a broken heart, a mended heart — and a miracle birth.
Tony and Hanna Buford met a couple of years ago at Hanna’s sister’s restaurant in Gilbert, Tina’s Ethiopian Café. The relationship between Hanna, a native of Ethiopia, and Tony, a native of Mississippi, bloomed and in July 2011, the couple married in Laughlin, Nev., surrounded by a few family members.
Shortly after, the couple — both now 35 — learned they would become parents. Hanna’s pregnancy started smoothly, but as the weeks went on, she found it more and more difficult to breathe. By the time she was referred to Dr. Tim Byrne, an interventional cardiologist, she could barely walk across a room without stopping for a breath.
During her childhood in Ethiopia, Hanna came down with rheumatic fever, which led to a diagnosis of mitral stenosis — or the narrowing of Hanna’s heart valves.
“She’d had a pretty normal pregnancy,” Byrne said. “She knew she had mitral stenosis, but I don’t think it was clear to her that mitral stenosis and pregnancy don’t mix.”
That’s because with pregnancy, a woman’s blood volume increases. The heart must work harder, not only because of the baby, but because there’s just more blood to pump.
It was too much for Hanna’s heart.
Less than a week after meeting Hanna, Byrne had her on an operating table at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center.
“Her pulmonary pressures were catastrophically high,” Byrne said.
The medical team planned to insert a balloon to expand Hanna’s small valves. Just in case, the team included a doctor to perform open-heart surgery and a doctor to deliver the baby — which was 32 weeks along at that point.
But that first surgery on Aug. 31 didn’t completely take place. Once Byrne got a look at Hanna’s heart valves, he decided he needed to step back and re-evaluate everything.
Not only were Hanna’s valves narrow, but her atrial chambers were enlarged.
Tony Buford said it was after that surgery that he really realized the trouble his wife was in.
“My biggest concern was her health, not only short term, but long term. I didn’t want the baby to have troubles. I was very, very worried. I wasn’t as worried the first time, but the second surgery really scared me,” Tony Buford said during a phone interview this week. “It really hit me seeing Hanna out of it Friday night after the first surgery.”
Byrne and his team made plans, and on Sept. 6, Hanna was again on the operating table at Banner Good Samaritan.
“It’s a complicated procedure,” Byrne said, explaining that he went through a vein in Hanna’s leg to get to her heart, poked through the wall of the heart to get to the left side, and then inserted the balloon into the valve to stretch it.
Like the first surgery, several other doctors were on hand — just in case.
“We knew there was a good chance we’d be delivering a baby,” Byrne said.
But in the first moments after the surgery, everything looked fine.
“The baby was happy as a clam through the entire procedure,” Byrne said.
Tony was given the news and went to get a snack in the hospital’s cafeteria. Byrne went down to talk to him.
But just a few minutes later, the baby’s heart rate turned south.
Baby Buford was in distress and needed to come out — fast.
Since the team was prepared for this, Hanna’s belly was draped in surgical cloths with just the right area exposed for a c-section.
Everything moved fast.
Maternal fetal specialist Dr. Thomas H. Strong Jr. said it was about 20 seconds from the time the knife touched Hanna’s belly to the time he brought “Baby Zeb” into the world.
“We stepped up to the table, she was still under anesthesia from the cardiac procedure, and suddenly there was a baby,” Strong said, all 4 pounds, 12 ounces of him.
Today, Tony Buford calls everyone involved a “blessing.”
Baby Zeb is in Phoenix Children’s Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit located at Banner Good Samaritan in Phoenix. Tony said he held back holding his son so his wife could be the first to do that.
“With everything she’d gone through, I wanted her to be the first of us to hold the baby,” Tony said.
Hanna went home this week and is “doing well.”
“It’s tearing us apart to leave him in the hospital. It was hard leaving him on one floor to go the next up at Banner. To be 30 miles from him, it’s hard. We’re looking forward to bringing him home,” Tony said.
And hopefully, dad says, that’ll happen in the next week.
“I’ve got to give it up to the nurses, nursing staff, the doctors,” he said. “Everyone at Banner Good Samaritan was outstanding.”
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