At 15 minutes old, a California newborn had her heart hooked to a tiny pacemaker. It was a delicate, cutting-edge operation that saved the baby from a rare but fatal heart defect, the Associated Press reports.
Before Jaya Maharaj was born, doctors could tell that her heart rate was dangerously low. She had congenital heart block, a rare condition that prevents normal electrical pulses from travelling through the heart to create a heartbeat.
The condition prevents newborns' hearts from making vital rhythm changes, such as increasing during feeding or decreasing during sleep, said Dr. Sessions Cole, director of the division of newborn medicine at Washington University in St. Louis and St Louis Children's Hospital, who was not involved in Jaya's care.
"When there is a fixed, low heart rate, the baby's ability to adapt is damaged, which can be life threatening," Cole told ABC News.
The doctors at Stanford University's Lucille Packard Children's Hospital decided knew Jaya had to be born as early as possible, and so induced labor, so that the medical team to fix her heart before it failed.
"The only way to save this baby was to deliver the baby right away and then the pacemaker," Dr. Katsuhide Maeda, who operated on Jaya, told the Associated Press.
Jaya was born nine weeks premature, weighing 3.5 pounds. Her heart beat at 45 beats per minute, while a newborn's heart normally hammers at 120 to 150 beats per minute. Fifteen minutes after Jaya's birth, Maeda opened her tiny chest and connected a miniature pacemaker to her walnut-size heart.
Cole told ABC News that putting a pacemaker into a newborn is not the only way to address a congenital heart block. Doctors could also use a method called external pacing in which they fit a belt around a the chest that regulates the heartbeat with electrical pulses. But Cole said that method is not always reliable and is intended more for full-term, larger babies.
"It is a technological advance to be able to do this in a baby who is this small and premature," Cole said.
Jaya is now nearly 3 months old, and weighs a healthy 8 pounds. Her father, Kamneel Maharaj, an information technology manager in Silicon Valley, told the Associated Press that he and Jaya's mother, Leanne, never lost hope that she would survive.
"We were worried, but at the same time we were hopeful that she was fighting inside and doing the best she can," he said.