Willow Alban made one request for her seventh birthday, to travel to Orlando, Florida and visit her favorite theme parks. Her parents, Stacy and Jeff Alban of the Cayman Islands, decided to surprise her by planning a vacation in July of 2017. Just a week before the trip, however, Willow began suffering from a sore throat. Stacy decided to take her daughter to the pediatrician to get better for the upcoming vacation.
Stacey says the next few hours and days were a whirlwind.
During the examination, the doctor discovered Willow had an irregular heartbeat. That same day, doctors performed an electrocardiogram (EKG) and an echocardiogram that revealed Willow had a tumor in her heart called an atrial myxoma.
"It all happened so fast that we just couldn't believe it. We could see the concern in the doctor’s face and knew it was serious," said Stacey.
Willow was referred to Nicklaus Children's Hospital's Heart Institute for surgery. That same week, the Alban family flew to Florida-- not for their vacation-- but instead for Willow's emergency open-heart surgery with Dr. Kristine Guleserian, congenital heart surgeon at Nicklaus Children's Hospital. Willow's tumor was quite large and nearly completely filled the right atrium.
"Hearing about any type of unexpected diagnosis can be incredibly overwhelming for parents, let alone an unusual or rare abnormality like a tumor in their child's heart," said Dr. Guleserian. "Thankfully we were able to provide reassurance to the Albans because of our program's experience in treating these types of abnormalities." Willow's one special request for her surgery was to take her plush bunny into the operating room.
"We try to make the operating room experience as welcoming and as comforting as possible for our patients," said Dr. Guleserian. "So when Willow asked if her bunny could go with her into the operating room, we made sure that it happened."
Dr. Guleserian performed a complete resection of the tumor using the smallest incision possible, a mini sternotomy. This technique, offered at Nicklaus Children's Hospital, allows for quicker recovery time and a smaller scar on the chest.
"Willow's recovery went so well she was able to celebrate her birthday, which was the day after her surgery, in her room with all of us by her side,” said Stacy. "Although we had hoped to celebrate her birthday in a different way, that day we celebrated life and Willow's recovery and for that we are most thankful."
As a token of her appreciation, Willow named her bunny "G-Bunny" after Dr. Guleserian, or "Dr. G" as she is known. "It was the perfect way to honor the doctor and the care team for all they did," said Stacey.
And thanks to her smooth recovery, Willow and her family finally got to visit the Orlando theme parks a few weeks after surgery.