After long wait, toddler receives new heart just in time for Thanksgiving

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It was a powerful moment.

"Zuzu" al-Taey walked the halls of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta for the first time, 3 days after receiving her new heart Saturday.

This is the same hospital, the same unit, where the Atlanta girl took her first steps as a baby months before.

Zuzu quickly became a staff favorite, the little girl with the big brown eyes, whose heart was failing.

"She was the life of the hallway," Nicole Lehr, a nurse practitioner with Children's Healthcare's heart transplant program, says.  "Anytime she came out of the room, everyone was always, like, 'Hey, Zuzu!' And she would wave."

But, because of Zuzu's rare blood type, it would take nearly 2 years to find donor heart that would be a good match for her.

"She is the only baby who has waited all this time," Anwar Jasim, Zuzu's mother, says.  "Most of the babies, they get a heart in like 3 months, maximum 6 months."

Zuzu waited 20 months for her heart.

After nearly a year in the hospital, Lehr and the Children's heart transplant team, were able to send Zuzu home, wearing a toddler-sized backpack pump that delivered IV medication to keep her heart functioning.

Even at home, her life was very limited.

"But Zuzu, I don't think she really knew," Lehr says.  "I think she thought she was home, just normally with her siblings, and I think that every time we saw her come in she was doing great, a lot of activity. She was jumping on the trampoline, doing all the normal kid things."

The wait was harder on Jasim and her husband Salah al-Taey, who emigrated from Iraq several years ago.  

Every checkup, Anwar would ask the transplant team if they'd found a heart for Zuzu.  

The answer was always the same: not yet.

This is life for a transplant patient: donor's hearts are precious and few.

"There are kids that don't make it, that are waiting for a heart," Lehr says. " There are kids that don't qualify for a heart transplant, that don't get the opportunity to get a donor organ.  And then there are kids that wait a long time."

Kids like Zuzu.

Last week, Anwar Jasim finally admitted to herself, the transplant likely wasn't going to happen.

"There is no way Zuzu is going to get a heart," Jasim says she told herself. "I was hopeless. There is no way Zuzu is going to get a heart."

Five days later, on a Friday night, a transplant coordinator called.

"She said, 'I've got good news for you. We've got a heart for Zuzu,'" Jasim remembers.

Zuzu's mother was so stunned, she asked the woman to repeat herself.

"I asked her 5 times," Jasim says.  "It was hard to believe it, that Zuzu gets a heart. I can't believe it."

The word spread quickly at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.

"There were some tears, a lot of happy tears," Nicole Lehr says.  "I know that the floor, the hospital really, was just super excited for it to come.  Because this was her home away from home for so long."

Within hours, Zuzu was in the OR, receiving a new heart, donated anonymously by another family losing a child.

"They went from being at home with a toddler with a really significant heart condition to, 24 hours later, having a heart that is functioning perfectly normal in her body," Lehr says.

It's hard for Zuzu's mother to describe how she feels.

"It's a different feeling," says Anwar Jasim.   "Scared, happy excited, everything."

In just a few days, Zuzu al-Taey will walk out of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, to begin her life with a heart as strong as she is.