Lifesaving surgery for George, 4

Happy family: George Slater, third from left, with parents Tim and Laura and brother Jack
Happy family: George Slater, third from left, with parents Tim and Laura and brother Jack
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A youngster who was kept alive with a rubber band and remote control has undergone the complex heart surgery needed to save his life.

George Slater, four, who lives in Whittingham, near Preston, was just months old when doctors discovered he had a variety of serious heart problems after he struggled to put on weight.

The major surgery George needed would have been too risky when he was so tiny, so surgeons fitted him with a medical marvel which was a band around the artery which expanded like a rubber band and was controlled by a remote control. However, George has now undergone the lifesaving heart surgery he was waiting for, and parents Laura and Tim are thrilled that the risky procedure has gone so well.

Here is George’s full story.

Little George Slater was kept alive with a pioneering device while surgeons waited for him to grow strong enough for major heart surgery. AASMA DAY talks to mum Laura about the family’s ordeal.

As his anxious family gathered around four-year-old George Slater’s bedside waiting for him to come round after 12 hours of major heart surgery, they held their breath in anticipation as his eyelids fluttered open and he uttered his first words.

“Boobies and knickers” mumbled George in a weary voice, and the nurse looking after him almost collapsed with laughter.

Laughing as she remembers how George brought some lightness to a fraught day, mum Laura says: “George is a cheeky little character and he loves making people laugh and telling jokes – particularly rude ones!

“The day of the surgery was so stressful for all of us, as we knew it was going to be a huge and very risky operation.

“George was in theatre for eight and a half hours for the operation, and it was horrible for us just waiting while it was going on.

“Then when it was over and George came into intensive care, doctors realised things were not right and George was bleeding internally.

“George was then rushed back into theatre for another three and a half hours.

“After such a stressful day, it was a delight to hear him say; ‘boobies and knickers’ as he came round!

“The nurse just fell about laughing!”

The family’s ordeal began when George was just a few months old, and his parents became concerned after he struggled to put on weight.

Laura, who is married to Tim and lives in Whittingham, near Preston, with George and their other son, Jack, six, remembers: “We couldn’t understand it as George was feeding well, but the weight just didn’t seem to go on.

“Then as time went by, he started losing weight, so we went to seek medical advice.”

The doctor noticed George was breathing rapidly and he was sent to Royal Preston Hospital. Doctors suspected George had a hole in his heart and sent him to Liverpool’s Alder Hey Hospital, where heart specialists discovered George had a variety of cardiac problems. George’s pulmonary artery – leading from his heart to his lungs – was too big, as it was 3cms wide instead of 1cm.

There was also too much pressure to George’s heart and lungs, making him breathless as his body had to work extra hard.

The youngster also had a hole in his heart.

Experts told George’s devastated family that he needed major heart operations, but that the risk of surgery would be much lower if they waited until he was bigger and stronger.

Laura, 36, who works for the NHS, explains: “They wanted to wait until George was bigger so his heart would be bigger, making it a less risky procedure.

“Your heart is the size of your fist, and George had tiny fists so the operation would have been very intricate.”

To give George the ability to survive until he was ready for the major surgery, he was fitted with an unusual device invented by a surgeon at Alder Hey.

The device, called a FloWatch, is like a band around the artery to narrow it and relieve pressure. The plastic band expanded in the same way as a rubber band, and a remote control was used to adjust it as George grew.

Laura says: “Before this invention, George would have had to have surgery each time the band needed to be expanded, and he would have faced at least four or five operations by now.

“But instead, it took about 30 seconds to adjust the FloWatch with the remote control. They just put the remote control on George’s chest to expand the band.”

Before the invention of the FloWatch, the conventional treatment was to wrap a piece of tape around the artery. However, this had the disadvantage that it was non-adjustable.

The temporary procedure did a great job of keeping George going and he developed as normal.

George had regular check-ups to monitor his progress at Alder Hey, and an outreach nurse would visit his home every few weeks to check his oxygen and blood levels.

Laura says: “They were trying to weigh up the balance of waiting until George was big enough for the surgery and whether he could actually wait any longer.”

Laura admits that when they got the date for George’s surgery, she became upset.

She explains: “Even though we had been preparing ourselves for this for almost four years, when we actually got the date, reality hit home.

“Doctors had warned us that there was a 15 per cent chance that George would not make it through the surgery.

“This was very frightening and the day of surgery was an extremely long day.

“During the surgery, surgeons closed up the hole in George’s heart, they tunnelled one of the arteries through the right ventricle and they took the FloWatch off and found it had damaged the artery so they had to repair that too.

“The surgeon told us that for difficulty, he rated George’s surgery as 9.5 out of 10.”

After just two days in Alder Hey’s intensive care unit, George was transferred to the wards.

After six days in hospital, he was back home where he is recovering well, and has even made it back to school at Goosnargh Oliverson’s C of E Primary School.

Laura says: “Doctors had to break George’s sternum to get to his heart to carry out the surgery.

“This has now been wired back together and George is back at school, but has to be careful and is not allowed to go out at playtime or take part in PE.

“The school have been great with George, and he has been doing half days while he recovers.”

While George was in hospital, Laura and Tim told him he could have any present he wanted when he got home and George asked for a puppy, so the family now have a Cocker Spaniel called Skye in addition to the two Labradors they already had.

Laura says George’s operation has been such a success that specialists believe he might not need a third operation, which he would have faced at the age of seven or eight.

Laura says: “George has been going from strength to strength since his surgery, even though it is still early days.

“He no longer has bits of plastic in his heart. He just has a normal heart as they have repaired it and fixed it to how it should be.

“We feel a huge sense of relief that the surgery has been done and has been a success.

“George is pink again and no longer has blue lips and he is a lot perkier.

“We can finally look ahead and plan things and even start looking at holidays abroad.

“We have not been able to go abroad with George as Alder Hey was the only place that could adjust the FloWatch.

“We want to thank all the staff at Alder Hey including the surgeons and nurses and everyone who cared for George. We also want to thank the nurses who came to the house to monitor him.

“We are also very grateful to the local community who have been sending good wishes and little presents for George and also the churches who have been saying prayers for him – particularly the ones in Longridge.

“The surgeon at Alder Hey who carried out George’s surgery was Prem Venugopal, and he was amazing. He only finished operating on George at midnight, and he was back at the hospital at 8am the following morning to check on him.

“It has been a real rollercoaster for the whole family and we are thrilled that the heart surgery has been done, as that is all we have been gearing up to for the last few years.”