The Kirchner family has a lot to celebrate this holiday season. Their son, Karson, is a happy and energetic 11-month-old baby. He's come a long way since being diagnosed with a rare heart condition that will require constant vigilance. But his progress is yet another example of how, this year, doctors are making amazing strides in so many ways.
Josh and Ashley Kirchner weren't sure how much time they would have with their son. At 28 weeks pregnant, they found out he had hypoplastic left heart syndrome, meaning the left side of his heart was underdeveloped.
"They came back with a doctor and then we're kind of like, 'This isn't good'. And the doctor told us, 'Well, we can't find part of his heart on the ultrasound'," recalled Josh Kirchner.
Some research led the Kirchners to Children's Hospital Colorado, where Karson was enrolled in a study to determine if stem cells from his own umbilical cord blood could help his heart function.
"There's another part of stem cells that don't create new tissue but create an environment to improve the existing tissue that's there, and that's what we're doing with this particular stem cell therapy," explained Dr. James Jaggers, with Children's Hospital Colorado.
Dr. Jaggers says this syndrome is the leading cause of death for children with heart defects in their first year of life. Karson's first surgery was when he was just two days old. His second to inject stem cells into his heart came a couple of months later.
"The mode of stem cell delivery was actual physical injection of the stem cells into the heart muscle itself. We do that in a number of different places on the heart to try and improve sort of a global function of the heart for the long term," said Dr. Jaggers.
One problem the doctors faced with the second surgery was it came during the start of the pandemic when travel was shut down. The Kirchners drove six hours from their home in South Dakota, but the stem cells had to be driven from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to Denver, a more than 12-hour drive.
Karson still needs one more surgery, which doctors say will be when he's 2 or 3 years old. His parents know there's no roadmap for this. And while they wait to see how his body responds, they want to enjoy every moment.
"We get to enjoy our little boy and kind of live in the moment a little better and not have to worry about that hanging over our head. We know it's coming. But, like they said to do, don't worry about it. When it comes, it comes," said Josh Kirchner.
Dr. Jaggers says the second phase of the study is done. Karson was the 16th to be accepted into it. The next phase will also include the use of stem cells in the third surgery. Dr. Jaggers says preliminary data shows some improved heart function. They now need to know how long it will last.