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Maleia catching up after heart surgery repaired a hole

All dressed up, Maleia Lawrence looks like a doll.

She still fits snugly in the crook of her mother's arm at 8 months old. Her deep, green eyes and curious tongue belie an otherwise placid expression.

"You got blessed," her mother whispers as she cradles the baby who has fought so hard to live.

Maleia is roughly half the size of other infants her age, weighing in at 10 pounds, 11 ounces. She was born a month early in August. She weighed 3zpounds and had both Down syndrome and a heart murmur.

It ended up being Maleia's heart that her family worried most about.

Maleia's mother, Sarah Elliott, remembers when the doctors broke the news that her daughter had Down syndrome.

"It was a big shock," she says. "It was hard. It was a big strain on the family. But when they're given to you, you love them no matter what."

Maleia's father had difficulty coming to terms with her disability, Elliott says, and the two no longer live together. But he remains an actively involved dad and lives nearby.

For a long time, their daughter wouldn't eat well. Doctors assumed it was because of Down syndrome. It took more than a month for Maleia to gain enough weight to be released from the hospital in October. But once she was home, the weight starting falling back off. Maleia didn't move, didn't cry. She didn't smile or laugh or eat.

Her older sister, Serenity, seemed to know her sibling was sick. Now almost 2, Serenity has always been a little helper for her mom when it came to Maleia, who needed all the help she could get.

The infant was sent to Women and Children's Hospital so doctors could insert a permanent feeding tube. But after the surgery, her heart murmur worsened, and she was sent to see a pediatric cardiologist in December.

That's when Dr. Dan Pieroni discovered that Maleia had a hole in her heart.

That hole was responsible for keeping her from growing and developing. Her malformed heart barely functioned well enough to keep her alive.

She underwent a five-hour surgery in January to correct the defect.

In doing so, Maleia became the first patient to undergo surgery as part of Women and Children's Hospital's re-established Cardiothoracic Surgery Program. The program is the only pediatric heart surgical service in the eight counties of Western New York.

A doctor from the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center flew in to perform the procedure. Both parents and their extended families packed a waiting room to hear the updates and the final announcement that the surgery was successful.

Maleia's recover was swift, and three days after surgery, she no longer needed the tube to eat.

"She was a whole new baby," said Elliott's mother, Yolanda Elliott. "After the surgery, she started to grab for her toys."

These days, Maleia is more like other babies. She can wriggle around, move her arms and legs, smile and laugh.

But Maleia is still small, still wearing zero-to-three-month sizes and struggling to catch up in many areas, like sitting up. Maleia missed her milestones when she had a bad heart, but now has plenty of time to catch up on her growth and development.

"She's a miracle baby," her mother said.

e-mail: stan@buffnews.com

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