Four Days in 'Cooling Bag' Saves Baby's Life

Finley Burton and his mother Donna Link-EmeryGeoff Robinson Photography
Finley Burton and his mother Donna Link-Emery

Finley Burton, a 16-week-old British baby who was born with an undiagnosed heart defect, is warming his parents' hearts today after surviving complicated and unconventional surgery.

According to the tabloid press, the infant was "frozen" for four days so that surgeons could repair two holes in his heart.

"Before, he was very quiet and withdrawn," said his mother, Donna Link-Emery of Newcastle in the northeast part of England. "Now, he is so loud and happy and smiley and just such a good baby. His presence fills the room."

The procedure -- therapeutic hypothermia, or lowering of the body temperature -- is commonly used in the United States, especially with babies who undergo surgery for birth defects, according to Dr. Timothy Gardner, a surgeon and recent president of the American Heart Association.


"But to say the child was frozen is absurd," he said.

British doctors cooled Finley's body to about 92 degrees Fahrenheit, just a few degrees below a normal body temperature of 98.6, to stabilize a near-fatal rapid heart rate during heart surgery.

"This child had a constellation of problems," said Gardner, who read the British reports. "Two holes in the heart and a blockage in the aorta. The surgery was moderately complex."

Chances of recovery in these cooling operations are usually "excellent," he said. "The one true thing in the story is the picture of the baby and how he looks."

According to the boy's mother, "He's brilliant, he's doing really well, and hopefully that will be forever. We've got our fingers crossed."

Finley's heart problems began when he was only 10 weeks old. Link-Emery and her partner, Aaron Burton, 31, took the child to the doctor when he wasn't putting on weight and had trouble breathing.

Gardner said the child was showing signs of cardiac arrest.

"He was literally sniffling and chesty because of his condition," Link-Emery told "Now I can't hear him and I have to check to see if he's breathing all the time."

Doctors referred Finley to the University Hospital of North Durham.

"I had a normal pregnancy and nothing was picked up on any of my scans, so I was expecting it to be a routine visit," she said.

But doctors could hear a heart murmur and ordered an echocardiogram, an EKG and an X-ray.

Parents Say Heart Surgery Was 'Frightening'

From there, the baby was sent to Freeman Hospital in Newcastle where they discovered not only a hole at the top of his heart and a smaller one at bottom, but aortic coarctation, a narrowing of the heart's main artery.

Within a day the boy underwent surgery, but during recovery he went into junctional ectopic tachycardia (JET), a rapid heartbeat that can be fatal.

Doctors cooled the child's body, then attached an external pacemaker to regulate the heart.

"It was very frightening," the 27-year-old first-time mother told the Sun newspaper. "We thought we were going to lose him. His heart was beating really quickly and we prayed he would survive."

Finley was put on a ventilator and placed him in a "little bag" that allowed air to flow around his body, according to Link-Emery.

Ten hours after the operation, the baby's parents were able to visit him and were provided with a "parent flat" to stay in while he was at the hospital. After four days, his heart rhythm began to stabilize.

They were at his side until he was released 12 days later. Now he is back home with his parents and thriving and will have check-ups every eight weeks.

Dr. Benjamin Abella, Director of Clinical Research in the Center for Resuscitation Science at the University of Pennsylvania, said the opportunities to use therapeutic hypothermia are "exciting."

"There are many potential applications and it is most useful during resuscitation from cardiac arrest," he said.

Cooling slows down the metabolism and can improve survival and especially brain recovery, according to Abella.

Patients are warmed up slowly over a period of time. The procedure also helps stop inflammation, which is a big problem after heart attacks and stroke.

"Cooling has a number of potential beneficial effects and we are only beginning to understand the range of application for the intentional control of body temperature," said Abella.

As for Finley's parents, they say the full emotional impact of their son's intricate surgery only hit them afterwards.

"Everything was so quick," said Link-Emery, who is still on maternity leave since Finley was born in February.

"We tried to stay positive and say all the time that he was going to be fine," she said. "At the time we were on adrenaline and focusing on the positive. Now, after the operation, we know how serious his condition was."

Finley's father has had the hardest time. "He's a very sort of sensitive person and it affected him quite badly," said Link-Emery. "He had to take sick leave from work."

The family is so grateful that they have asked for donations to Freeman Hospital's Children's Heart United Fund.

Today, Finley is sleeping in his parents' room next to their bed -- and his mother laughs that after what they have been through, "he will be there until he's at least 17."