4-year-old Missouri girl gets heart transplant right before Christmas

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

ST. LOUIS -- The Billings family waited seven months for the call, taking trips that were relatively close to St. Louis Children's Hospital, keeping the gas tank at least half full so they could break away at a moment's notice.

The call finally came Saturday, when the Green Ridge family received word that they were getting an early Christmas gift: a new heart for 4-year-old Olivia.

The new heart initially had trouble beating after the transplant because of pressure in her lungs. But by Monday she was resting in the cardiac intensive care unit at St. Louis Children's Hospital in serious condition.

"She's known nothing but machines her whole life," Clifton Billings said of his daughter. "I guess this Christmas would be the start of a new life."

Olivia was born prematurely at St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City on March 23, 2003, and doctors suggested the family take her off life support. They declined at the behest of Lena's sister, a registered nurse. Olivia had strong vital signs and was holding her own, so they opted to give her a chance.

"We decided, no, we're not to going to pull the plug," Lena Billings said.

Olivia had a tracheotomy for her first 2 1/2 years of life due to an unrelated condition. Clifton Billings had to quit working for his father on the family farm so they could qualify for Medicaid to pay for the in-house nursing required to take Olivia home from the hospital.

The Billings' only child also was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, which causes one side of the heart to become enlarged to compensate for a weak muscle on the opposite side.

Doctors initially didn't put her on the transplant list because they weren't sure what had caused her condition or whether it would recur with a new heart. Olivia was later added to the list after doctors were satisfied that she had no other developmental disabilities, then taken off it after responding well to medication.

But the Billings noticed she was lethargic in February, and doctors determined that her heart was starting to fail. Olivia was reactivated to the transplant list in May, and the family stayed at the Ronald McDonald House in St. Louis, waiting for a transplant.

They watched as 11 families in a month received hearts and went home. The Billings went home in August, but without a heart for Olivia. Her blood type was making it difficult to find a match.

Olivia's name came up as a recipient four times, but each time the surgeon found the donor heart to be unacceptable for transplant.

"It's gotten to the point we're thinking 'Is it going to come?'" Lena Billings said.

Then the call came.

After doing some Christmas shopping in Sedalia on Saturday, the Billings stopped at a restaurant, where Olivia ordered a corn dog. They had just finished eating when the phone rang. The Billings paid the bill and hurriedly left for St. Louis, making it in time for Olivia to get her new heart early Sunday morning.

And now, if all goes well, the little girl who once had to tote her medicine around in a Dora backpack will get a chance to go to Disney World by her birthday -- a trip the family had to postpone twice because of her medical condition.

The Billings family hopes to someday thank the family of the child whose heart Olivia received.

"Because of their child, our child lives," Clifton Billings said. "It makes you look at being a donor a lot differently."

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