University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust

Meet the patients: Cora Banyard

Cora BanyardBorn and diagnosed with only half a heart complicated by two main arteries in the wrong position and two holes, Cora Banyard's parents, Deb and Mark, were told surgery to correct her condition would not be possible. Instead, five-year-old Cora had to undergo major open-heart operations at two other UK hospitals simply to prolong her life.

At just a day old, doctors at the family’s local hospital in Berkshire quickly realised something was wrong. “We were distraught,” said Mark, 40, an IT manager. “We were told not to have any hope of any medical miracles or advancements and that the very best we could expect was life expectancy of late teens – only if everything went perfectly.” The prognosis for children born with single ventricle heart conditions is poor, with only 50% likely to survive until they are five-years-old.

After seeing their daughter struggle to live life for two years after life-extending operations at six and 18 months, the family uprooted from their home to be closer to Southampton General Hospital, where they asked its renowned team of specialists for a second opinion on her treatment. “Cora’s quality of life was poor – it was difficult for her to participate in any physical activity – and we felt we had to try something else,” said full-time mum Deb, 38. “We had researched Southampton’s team extensively and wanted to come and talk to them to see if there was anything they could do.”

The family made their first visit to Southampton in November 2009, where they embarked on a journey they never thought possible. Using a revolutionary scanning technique – multiplane review (MPR) 3D echocardiography – pioneered in Southampton by consultant paediatric cardiologist Dr Joseph Vettukattil, he and colleague Dr Kevin Roman made a lifechanging discovery. “Although diagnosed as having one pumping chamber instead of the normal two, to the family’s delight, we found that Cora actually had a reasonable second ventricle using a combination of MPR 3D and cardiac MRI scanning,” explained Dr Roman.

The breakthrough meant corrective surgery was possible, but would be extremely high risk. Led by cardiac surgeon Marcus Haw, the team attempted a radical four-part operation to ‘re-plumb’ Cora’s heart in November 2010. “Creating a normal circulation for Cora required taking down the previous surgery, performing an arterial switch, re-implanting inlet valve attachments which were crossing through the hole and closing a difficult hole between the two pumping chambers,” said Mr Haw.

The result is a complete transformation for Cora that has uncovered a new life – which includes trampolines, swimming pools and fun in the park with her parents and three-year-old sister Zelie, with whom she shares a close bond. “Prior to surgery, Cora remained happy and positive because, in her words, ‘they were going to mend her heart to be the same as Zelie’,” said Deb. “Watching them both having fun together now is an amazing sight and one we cherish every day.” Dr Roman added: “We could have chosen to undertake further palliative surgery, which would have been very low risk – but this would have meant poor quality of life for the rest of her life. This surgery has revolutionised Cora. Her exercise capacity is excellent having been very poor before and her long term outlook is now very good.”

Despite a rollercoaster of emotions for the family and years of constant hospital trips, they do not go a day without thinking of the staff who cared for their daughter. Deb said: “We can’t thank all of the medical, nursing and play staff enough for their help, skills and support, particularly play specialists Becky Cutler and Jo Groves, who worked with Cora in the months prior to surgery to prepare a very scared and bright child for what was to come. “These guys are true heroes – the day we chose Southampton marked a new start for Cora and our family and we’ll never forget that.

This story was first published in Connect magazine.