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Christian Niswonger

“You hear so many stories about 16- and 17-year-olds who were perfectly fine, who were athletes and then collapsed. That is what they told us could happen to Christian. Her lifespan would be 16 to 17 years,” said Victoria Babu, recalling the day her newborn daughter was diagnosed with congenital heart disease.

Babu and her husband, David Niswonger, were living in North Carolina. Victoria was a news anchor at a television station and David worked in the insurance business.

When Christian’s day of birth arrived, a happy, healthy pregnancy turned worrisome.

“The delivery was extremely difficult. She was in distress. I was in distress. They pushed a button and all the emergency doctors came,” Victoria said. “She was blue. There was no cry, none of the joy you have when a baby was born.”

Christian spent her first day of life in intensive care and was soon diagnosed with a rare heart condition, endocardial cushion defect, in which the walls separating the heart’s chambers are poorly formed. There were holes in the upper and lower chambers of her heart.

Doctors in North Carolina suggested that Christian could wait until the age of five for surgery, when she presumably would be bigger and better able to tolerate the procedure.

Victoria and David had been planning a move back to the Midwest to be near their families after their daughter was born. He was the first to find a job, and a move to St. Louis was in the works.

Babi-23-imageLearning that the family was moving to St. Louis, their doctors in North Carolina recommended that Christian go to Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital and see D. Glenn Pennington, M.D., a cardiothoracic surgeon.

“They told us Cardinal Glennon attracts the best and the brightest, so that was where I wanted to go,” Victoria said.

The family arrived in St. Louis in May of 1987 and met Pennington. He recommended that Christian’s surgery be scheduled immediately. “He said children are resilient and she will recover quickly,” Victoria said.

Christian, then 14 months old, underwent an eight-hour procedure in July. “I will never forget the doctor walking out and saying that Christian did great,” said her mother. “It was a big sigh of relief. David and I just melted into each other’s arms and cried.

“Christian was in intensive care for a couple of days and had a week on a regular floor. The care was great. Those nurses were angels. The doctor was checking on her every day. David and I cannot say enough good things about Dr. Pennington and the care we got.”

The comforts of Glennon were particularly important to a family that was new to town. “To move here and not know anybody, it was everything to us,” Victoria said.

Christian resumed the life of a normal little girl. While she still has a leaking valve in her heart, she has enjoyed an active life for the past 25 years.

“I have never been on medication,” Christian said recently. “My heart has never held me back from doing anything. When I was a kid I played softball and all those sports you play when you are growing up. I was a cheerleader in high school. I do have asthma and allergies, but that is something separate from my heart condition.

“I am really active outside. We ride our bikes and I do spinning classes at the gym. I am able to get my heart rate up and keep up with everybody around me.”

Christian continued to visit Glennon’s cardiologists annually for heart exams until she was attending college. Pennington later left St. Louis to become chairman of cardiothoracic surgery at Wake Forest University. He now is a professor of surgery at East Tennessee State University.

After Christian’s health issues were resolved and a younger sister, Julia, came along, Victoria resumed her career. Using her maiden name, she worked at KSDK-TV as a reporter followed by a decade as morning news anchor at KTVI-TV. She currently is news director and morning anchor at the Big 550 KTRS-AM.

Remembering the dark prognosis for untreated endocardial cushion defect, Victoria harbored fears that Christian might become sick when she reached 16 or 17 years of age. “When those years came, I was holding my breath. When we would go to Christian’s annual appointments, I was thinking, ‘Please, let everything be okay.’ Once we got through that hump, I knew she would grow up to be a lovely young lady, and she has.”

Christian works in the development office of St. Patrick Center in St. Louis, organizing fund-raising events. She has no memories of her surgery, but she has heard many stories about her stay at Glennon.

“Every time, to this day, when we drive by Glennon I start to talk about our experience,” Victoria said. “The kids say, ‘I know! I know! That is where Christian had her surgery!’ Glennon is so dear to our hearts. I still feel that way.”