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UCLA Sends Twin Home

Nick Draper's new heart is beating so strongly that he no longer needs full-time nursing care.

April 02, 2006|Kurt Streeter | Times Staff Writer

Nick Draper, the 8-month-old identical twin who nearly died after receiving a heart transplant in February, was discharged from UCLA Medical Center on Saturday and allowed to go home with his parents for the first time.

UCLA doctors, who had been monitoring Nick for weeks, said he had passed a major hurdle: His new heart is beating so strongly that he can live without intravenous medication, feeding tubes and full-time nursing care.

"No tubes, no wires, he's unattached for the first time," said his mother, Nicole, who had never seen her baby outside of a hospital until Saturday. "He's free!"

Flanked by her husband, Mike, Nicole carried Nick from the hospital to a hotel across the street, where the couple have lived with three of their other children since January. It was the first time, Mike Draper said, that his baby had felt the sun or had wind hit his face.

Nick and his twin brother, Nate, were born in Phoenix, the Drapers' hometown, with a rare and deadly heart deformity known as dilated cardiomyopathy. Barely clinging to life, the twins were taken shortly after birth to UCLA's Mattel Children's Hospital, regarded for its cardiac care.

Because Nate initially wasn't healthy enough to get a new heart, Nick was placed on the transplant list first and remained ahead of his brother. From the start, doctors said that both boys probably would die if they did not get transplants by the time they walked or shortly after. By then their bodies would need hearts that worked efficiently.

On Feb. 16, Nick received a new heart in a tense, five-hour transplant operation. The new heart failed to pump strongly. Doctors scrambled to keep Nick alive by attaching him to a heart-bypass machine.

The boy remained on bypass for several days, his chest left open because doctors worried that the heart would be rejected. Within two weeks, though, the transplanted heart began to work well and doctors sewed up his chest.

Since then, Nick has been weaned off drugs that kept his heart pumping. On Saturday morning, when the latest tests showed the heart to be beating normally, doctors decided to let Nick leave the hospital.

His brother, Nate, remains in an intensive care ward at the hospital as he awaits a transplant. Nate's condition has stabilized over the last few weeks, said cardiologist Dr. Juan Alejos, though he is still badly in need of a new heart.

Despite having one child still in the hospital, Mike and Nicole Draper could hardly contain their happiness as they prepared to leave with Nick. In a white bag, they bundled up the toys and blankets that have been in Nick's hospital room most of his life. They both smiled broadly, despite the work and worry ahead.

Nick will have to be given up to 11 medications and 20 doses a day to keep his new heart from being rejected and his blood pressure and cholesterol from spiking. The Drapers will have to limit his physical activity. His weakened immune system will leave him susceptible to cancer.

What's more, transplanted hearts don't last. Doctors at UCLA have found that children live an average of 10 to 12 years before the organs are rejected.

Sometimes rejection can be staved off with another transplant. Sometimes it leads to death. Nick's family is pinning much of their hope on medical breakthroughs that might increase the lifespan of Nick's new heart.

The future and its uncertainty seemed far away Saturday as Nick left the hospital, cradled in a white blanket and his mother's arms.

Nick and his mother were surrounded by his father and three of his siblings: Caitlin, 6, and Emma and Brendan, both 5. As the family walked slowly out of a side entrance, a rush of cold wind hit Nick's face. Nicole Draper bundled Nick up a bit more. She walked him out of the shade and into sun.

"Oh, this is it, the outside, bud," Mike Draper said, looking at his son and grinning. "This is the outside, little man."

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