Born with congenital heart defects, Brilee Casto was taken directly to Egleston hospital, a branch of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, when she was born. At just 6 days old, she had her first heart surgery. Following a second surgery at 15 days old and a six-week-long hospital stay, the Castos finally returned home. But that was just the beginning of the fight. “A few weeks later she crashed at home,” recalls Whitney, Brilee’s mother. Fast forward one more surgery and operation, followed by three years living a normal life at home—and then came May 10.
During a standard six-month cardiology checkup, an Echo revealed Brilee’s severely compromised heart function. “The doctor came in and told me ‘there’s nothing we can do, we need to list her for a transplant now,’” says Whitney. “I didn’t know what to say.” By May 17 she had been placed on the transplant list. But after a few weeks, things began to deteriorate further. To keep her alive, Brilee either needed a new heart right then or to be placed on the Berlin heart, a ventricular assist device (VAD) to manually support the heart. July 2, Brilee underwent the successful 10-hour surgery. Less than a month after the procedure, the spunk returned in that little girl, who spent her days riding her bicycle up-and-down the CHOA hallways. Luckily, the happiest part was yet to come.
It was a typical Sunday at the hospital for the family, but little did they know that long-awaited call would finally come. “The nurse we had that day, Kit, had taken care of Brilee since she was born,” starts Whitney, “I could see her through the window holding the phone and crying, and I knew Brilee got her heart.”
Now seven months past the successful transplant, Whitney reflects on her family’s time spent at CHOA. “The staff—everybody from nurses to doctors to the cafeteria workers—they are there for you,” she says. “These people are our friends, our family—this place becomes your home.” As for Brilee, she’s gearing up to start her first year of school. Even with a long road ahead, the Castos are grateful for each day together: “I’m a different person now. I’m more thankful for life, our family, everything. Tomorrow is never promised.”
Photography by: Patrick Heagney