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Your Healthy Family: Geoffrey's amazing heart journey through Children's Hospital Colorado

Posted at 3:27 PM, May 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-12 17:28:28-04

AURORA — In this edition of Your Healthy Family, I’m introducing you to Geoffrey Zohner, who has met more than his fair share of doctors in his 18 years of life. Many of them he likely doesn’t even remember, he was too young. Though he will likely remember the doctors from Children’s Hospital Colorado, for the rest of his life - a life that now comes with a much higher quality of living.

A first in the world use on a pediatric patient of new 3D technology at Children’s Hospital Colorado, was just one part of an amazing heart journey for this teenager who has been dealing with medical issues his entire life.

Geoffrey says, “They knew when she (my mom) was pregnant with me that I had something wrong.”

All in all, Geoffrey considers himself a lucky guy. A sentiment shared by his parents, Justin and Courtney. Justin says, “Geoffrey does have his issues but all in all he has been very lucky, and very fortunate that he’s had the outcomes that he’s had throughout.”

Geoffrey was born with Noonan Syndrome, a genetic disorder that can prevent normal development in various parts of the body. Geoffrey’s biggest medical challenge began at birth.

Justin says, “He was born early and in the NICU they heard a murmur, did some echocardiogram stuff and picked up on the valve.”

An under-developed pulmonary valve in Geoffrey’s heart that controls blood flow from the heart to the pulmonary arteries and lungs.

The family followed up with a pediatric cardiologist and before his 2nd birthday, Geoffrey had open heart surgery. It wasn’t a perfect fix but it was good enough, and little Geoffrey powered through it.

Justin says, “At 18 months it was amazing to watch him come out of open-heart surgery. He was there with drainage tubes and swollen, and then I would go to work for eight hours and come back and he would be a different kid.”

Little Geoffrey was out of the hospital in 3 days. One of the options the surgeon was considering at the time was to replace the under-developed pulmonary valve, but decided he would open up the constricted valve enough to get Geoffrey in good health. In hindsight, it was the first of many moments of medical inspiration from his doctors.

Justin looks back and says, “I don’t know if our surgeon had a crystal ball or what. He said, ‘The longer Geoffrey can use his own valve, (in the future) they may be able to do some sort of cath procedure.’ Courtney and I were crossing our fingers and thinking, ‘Man - if we can not have to go through another open heart surgery that would be awesome.’”

Geoffrey grew up, doing things most kids are able to do. Geoffrey says, “I played tackle football all through fourth grade through sixth grade.”

All the while Justin and Courtney kept a close eye on Geoffrey. Courtney recalls, “It was pretty scary. We went to the doctor a lot, once a month we had a check up because with Noonan Syndrome, he had other issues going on. I was always afraid he would get hurt or something but he did pretty well on his own.”

But Geoffrey and his parents knew it was a matter of time until he would need to have his less than perfect heart valve replaced, which most likely meant another open heart surgery.

Dr. Gareth Morgan, a pediatric interventional cardiologist with Children’s Hospital Colorado explains what was going on with Geoffrey’s heart, and why it needed to be fixed. “Geoffrey had a leak in one of the major valves of his heart. Every heart has 4 valves and they all need to not leak for the heart to function properly. Geoffrey’s pulmonary valve that allows blood to go from the heart to the lung arteries where it gets filled with oxygen, wasn’t working at all. All the blood that went forward towards his lungs, gushed back into his heart. That makes for a very inefficient circuit. To make his heart work well and to make Geoffrey get the most out of every heartbeat the valve has to be made competent so it doesn’t leak. The only way to do that with a patient like Geoffrey is to replace the valve to stop any leakage.”

Dr. Morgan says, because he grew up with his pulmonary valve not working competently, Geoffrey didn’t really notice how it was all impacting his quality of life. But his known medical conditions as he continued through school began to limit his desire to play sports.

Geoffrey says, “It was hard getting told no (in middle school) and that’s how it was in high school too. It’s been that way the last 2-3 years with basketball. I wanted to play, but I also found ways to be a part of a team like managing, but deep inside it hurt.”

In 2021 Geoffrey’s cardiologist in Kansas recommended it was time. After more than 14 years it was time to start making plans to get his pulmonary valve replaced, which likely meant that looming open heart surgery.

Geoffrey says, “When I heard that we had to have open heart surgery, my first reaction was ‘How am I gonna get through this?’ But, as time progressed I started to mentally prepare myself for it. I went from saying, ‘If I can get through this then other stuff is going to be better. That is when I thought maybe football might be an option or basketball afterwards.”

In August of 2021 Geoffrey - his mom and dad - came to Colorado prepared for a 10 day stay and an appointment for open heart surgery when again, medical inspiration stepped into a doctor’s mind for Geoffrey.

Geoffrey says, “It’s kind of a funny story if you think about it. We got there on Friday, then on Saturday afternoon we got a phone call saying they reviewed my case records and Dr. Morgan has said ‘Why haven’t we considered the option of cath operation because he’s a perfect candidate for it?'”

Dr. Morgan says, “To be fair what Geoffrey's family thought and what his cardiologist (in Kansas) thought is the standard way of doing things. We need to do a better job as a community of educating cardiologists and families about these minimally invasive modern approaches to congenital heart disease. Thank goodness we’ve got access to all of that technology here at Children’s Colorado. We talk about all our patients before anything gets done and as we discussed Geoffrey’s case as a group, there were several people in the room who were putting their hands up saying, ‘Hold on just a second, what about this new technology that we have and we’ve developed. there’s a way to do this procedure might get Geoffery the same result with a much more minimally invasive approach and a much quicker recovery much less physical and psychological trauma and hopefully get him back to doing what he loves doing really quickly.’”

When the option of avoiding open heart surgery was presented to the family, it seemed like a slam dunk to Justin and Courtney. It was what they had been hoping for since Geoffrey’s first open heart surgery.

Geoffrey however, wasn’t so easily swayed. “When (my parents) heard the news they were like ‘let’s do it, let’s get it over with’. And I was like ‘hold on hold, hold on. I want to meet this person.’ I mean yes he’s a doctor, but I kind of thought he was crazy.”

Dr. Morgan says, “Geoffrey, he was intrigued by the idea, and this is a guy with a pretty inquiring mind and an interesting way of looking at things. He wanted to hear all about it and see if he agreed with my take on the technology and look at all the statistics and all of the medical evidence.”

After coming into the hospital on a day off, and answering each of Geoffrey’s questions Dr. Morgan eased Geoffrey’s concerns. Geoffrey says, “On that Sunday we sat down and he showed us everything that was going to go on, it made me feel really comfortable.”

Justin says, “Kudos to Geoffrey to take it upon himself - not to just listen to mom and dad. It was hard for him to switch gears so quickly. He was so focused on getting better. Dr. Morgan took the time on a Sunday afternoon to meet us in the hospital lobby. He sat down with a cup of coffee and answered as many questions as Geoffrey had. He was so patient and he even took the time to go back to his office to get models of the devices that we’re going to be using and really walked Geoffrey through it all.”

Dr. Morgan says it’s important to take the time to educate not just the parents, but his pediatric patients about the process of fixing their congenital heart disease. “If I would’ve sat down with Geoffery and been anxious or nervous or in a hurry he would’ve smelled a rat. For me, having confidence in the technology and the team that I work with means that Geoffrey can ask me any questions he wants, and I’m happy to answer honestly so he knows that I am not leading him up a garden path, or trying to pull the wool over his eyes. There was no doubt in my mind this was a completely appropriate option for him.”

So after that meeting, Geoffrey says, “I was like, ‘Okay, let’s do this instead because another thing he said was instead of 6 to 9 month recovery it would be 6 to 9 weeks.

So the Zohner’s canceled their surgery for the following Tuesday, and returned to Kansas with a return trip scheduled a few months later.

The extra time, and miles for another trip to Aurora from Kansas were more than worth it for the Zohners, and Geoffrey and Children’s Hospital Colorado made a little world history in the process. Dr. Morgan says, “For Jeffery we introduced a first in the world, using a new type of imaging called 3-D ICE on a pediatric patient. This is a new intracardiac echocardiography catheter which is a way of using standard ultrasound technology but miniaturized to give us what are really phenomenal pictures inside patients' hearts.”

Not only did Geoffrey become the very first pediatric patient to benefit from the 3D ICE technology catheter guided valve replacement procedure, he agreed to let Dr. Morgan document and share his surgery in real-time, so other pediatric cardiologists could help other young patients avoid open heart surgery when possible.

Dr. Morgan says, “We were lucky to be hosting a big international meeting on interventional cardiology in Denver, the CSI meeting. As part of that meeting we always have live and recorded cases so we can provide education for doctors all over the world. Geoffrey agreed to have his case filmed so we could basically share the new technology and the new techniques with interventional cardiologists throughout North America and around the world. Geoffrey seemed tickled at the idea.”

Geoffrey not only got what he calls ‘Rock-Star’ treatment as the only case on the schedule that day so it could be shared with the conference, but it was more meaningful to him that his experience was going to be shared with other doctors. Geoffrey says, “I wanted to help other kids so they didn’t have to go through what I went through when I was eighteen months old. So they can also have a quicker recovery. That was very important to me, because I’m a very person and school is very important to me. Getting back to school quickly helped me a lot.”

Dr. Morgan says, “The procedure went really well. His new valve is working as well as any valve, and his heart is seeing the benefits of not having to deal with a huge amount of leakage and the extra volume of blood it was having to deal with.”

Instead of a 9 month recovery from open heart surgery, Geoffrey was out of Children’s Hospital Colorado 3 days later, and was back at school in Kansas by the end of the week. Geoffrey says, “I was back to normal in four weeks which I thought was crazy.” Justin adds, “The soreness Geoffrey had at the catheter site was the worst part.”

From birth to now, it’s been quite a journey for Geoffrey and his family. Justin says, “Sometimes it’s hard to believe that we went through what we did - and it turned out like it did. Sometimes you have to pinch yourself and think, ‘Man we were ready to go through open-heart surgery a second time and then boom, here we are and he’s doing great. We are super blessed to have it turn out the way it did. The entire team at Children’s Colorado was great. We could not be happier with how the whole thing turned out.” Courtney says, “The entire hospital staff have all been amazing, from beginning to end, the post surgery care - all of it.”

Now, 6 months later how’s Geoffrey doing? He says, “I’ve been playing a little bit of basketball here and there with friends, and I can tell a difference each time. I can go a little bit longer without getting as tired. I’m playing golf again, and I don’t get tired like last year. I would get tired on about hole 8 or 9 and would get really tired on the back 9. Now I'm walking all 18 holes and I feel perfectly fine.”

Finally, Dr. Morgan gives Geoffrey’s parents a lot of credit for understanding that the specialized care he needed wasn’t available where they lived and were willing to travel here to Colorado. While it ended up taking an extra trip in the end not having to have to go through another open heart surgery was more than worth it.