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Liberty Ridge student on the mend and back to school after open heart surgery

Liberty Ridge Elementary fourth grader Joshua Somers underwent his fourth open heart surgery on Aug. 24 at Stanford University to correct a narrowing in his aorta.

Like most of his classmates, Liberty Ridge Elementary fourth grader Joshua Somers struggled earlier this month with the first day of school, having to readjust to early mornings and homework.

However, Somers' adjustment was even more complex, having had gone through open heart surgery just two weeks earlier.

"I was looking forward to going back to school for once," he said.

For the first week of school Somers went to school for half-days, but last week he started going full days.

"It was amazing how he recovered," Somers' mother, Heather Djarnett said. "He's really strong."

Somers' surgery in August was actually his fourth open heart surgery.

Multiple surgeries

When Somers was born, Djarnett said there weren't any warning signs of what was to come.

"He was a full term, 10-pound baby, healthy, no problems," she said, "and he grew normally."

But at six months, doctors detected a heart murmur in Somers, but murmurs can be common in babies, Djarnett said.

"But at eight months the murmur was louder," she said.

Somers was referred to a cardiologist who informed Djarnett that he needed surgery.

"That's when everything was like 'whoa' - it was almost like a shock," she said. "You're kind of in a 'Twilight Zone' - you go to the doctors just because you have to."

Doctors determined that Somers had a narrowing of his aorta, the heart's main artery.

Additionally Somers' aorta went to the right rather than the left like it normally does.

"The biggest problem was the narrowing and it was causing high blood pressure to his brain," Djarnett said. "It had to squeeze through that little bottleneck."

Since most of the blood was flowing to his brain, very little was flowing downward, Djarnett said.

"There was really very little profusion going down so doctors couldn't feel pressures in his feet," she said. "You would never know there was anything wrong though because he was in the 100th percentile for growth, weight and height - he was a really thriving kid."

Somers underwent surgery four days after his first birthday.

Doctors opened up Somers' aorta and then added a patch to increase the diameter.

However, six months later Somers was back in the hospital.

During routine cardiologist appointments, doctors found continued narrowing and determined that Somers' vascular ring, a part of his aorta, was wrapped around his trachea.

Somers' trachea was four millimeters pre-surgery and nine millimeters post surgery,

Djarnett said.

"But there was still a little bit of residual narrowing in the aorta," Djarnett said.

After his second surgery Somers visited a cardiologist twice a year so doctors could continue to monitor the narrowing in his aorta.

In January of last year, doctors informed Djarnett that they felt another surgery was needed."

"They said we just can't watch this anymore," she said.

In March, Somers underwent a third surgery where doctors again opened up his aorta and added another patch.

"Two weeks later the narrowing seemed to be a little worse," Djarnett said. "Four weeks later it was worse than it was to begin with.

"That's when the doctors said 'We're not touching him here ever again; he needs to go to the best in the country."

Djarnett and Somers were referred to a cardiac surgeon at Stanford University, in San Jose, Calif.

Djarnett said she felt comfortable about bringing Somers to Stanford University because not only is her husband originally from San Jose, but his cousin actually works at Stanford University in the neonatal intensive care unit.

"It's comforting to know that someone I know knows the doctor," she said.

During the Aug. 24 surgery, doctors found Somers' laryngeal nerve was wrapped around his aorta and that is what was causing the narrowing.

"The narrowing that has been left over for so long was actually because his laryngeal nerve was wrapped around his aorta," Djarnett said. "I don't know why that was never caught. The doctors immediately said 'I have never heard his heart so clear and his heart looks better than it ever has his entire life.'"

Almost clear

Having gone through four open heart surgeries hasn't been without side effects.

Somers' voice has become higher after last month's surgery.

"His voice has changed since they had to manipulate that laryngeal nerve," Djarnett said.

Djarnett said she is hopeful it won't have any permanent effects.

"Why did you have to dig around in my voice box," Somers wondered aloud.

Additionally, Somers cannot participate in any contact sports or weight training the rest of his life.

"He's not a real competitive sport type of kid so it works out well," she said.

Somers also has not been able to participate in recess or gym at school the last two weeks.

However, Djarnett said that should change once doctors give him the all clear.

Somers will be getting an MRI on his brain and heart in the coming weeks.

"After the first of October hopefully he can resume a somewhat normal life," Djarnett said. "The fact that this is almost over has not sunk in yet since it has been our life since he was 8 months old - it's really hard to imagine life without it."

Djarnett said she feels very blessed with how things have turned out for her son.

"I feel blessed that he's fixed that he's out of the hospital when there are other people whose children are in the hospital chronically for months," she said. "I can't imagine what those parents have to go through.

"What we've gone through is a drop in the hat compared to what a lot of other people go through."

Amber Kispert-Smith

Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.

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