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Elizabeth's Story

Elizabeth Dragovits, now 7, already has dealt with many health issues in her young life. Born with the birth defect spina bifida, she also had a condition called tracheomalacia -- meaning the rings of her trachea were not strong enough to support her breathing on her own. At the age of 7, Elizabeth already has undergone 18 surgeries -- the most recent in May 2013. She also has had to depend on a feeding tube to eat and a tracheostomy tube (trach) to help her breathe.

Elizabeth, a patient of the Pediatric Aerodigestive Center

When she was 3-1/2, Elizabeth’s trach was removed at another hospital, which allowed her to breathe on her own. At first, she did very well. But as she continued to grow, her health slowly declined. She began to suffer from stridor — high-pitched, noisy breathing caused by a narrowing of the windpipe. The stridor caused Elizabeth to have shortness of breath when playing or even talking. “There is no way I can describe the fear,” Elizabeth’s mom, Melanie, says, thinking about when Elizabeth would turn a bluish gray from respiratory distress.

Elizabeth’s condition caused other complications. For instance, a simple cold would evolve to pneumonia, resulting in Elizabeth being admitted to the hospital. Her growth in height and weight were well below average for her age.

When Elizabeth and her family moved to Pittsburgh from Florida, they found Deepak Mehta, MD, director of the Pediatric Aerodigestive Center at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. Dr. Mehta’s evaluation found that Elizabeth suffered from subglottic stenosis, a narrowing of the airway below the vocal cords and above the trachea. Subglottic stenosis is relatively common after a long period of intubation or ventilation. As a baby, Elizabeth had endured a number of emergency intubations.

Dr. Mehta found that more than 50 percent of Elizabeth’s airway was obstructed. In fact, her airway was about the size of a newborn’s. A multidisciplinary assessment with otolaryngologists, pulmonologists, gastroenterologists, and speech-language pathologists was made in the state-of-the-art Pediatric Aerodigestive Center. They decided to proceed with laryngotracheal reconstruction to help with

Elizabeth, a patient of the Pediatric Aerodigestive Center
 Elizabeth’s airway.

The decision was distressing news for the family; they had hoped Elizabeth would not require another major surgery. But with Dr. Mehta’s encouragement, they proceeded with laryngotracheal reconstruction surgery in October 2011. Elizabeth spent her sixth birthday in the hospital recovering from the reconstruction.

Dr. Mehta’s goal during the four-hour procedure was to expand Elizabeth’s airway so she could breathe easily. To do this, he took some cartilage from her ribs and inserted grafts into the area below her vocal cords. The surgery was performed in this section of the throat to expand the narrow air passageway and allow for Elizabeth to breathe without difficulty.

Following surgery, Elizabeth was intubated in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) and spent a weeklong recovery period there. “Crucial to the success of the surgery is the postoperative care in the intensive care unit,” says Dr. Mehta. “The PICU team at Children’s has expertise in managing complex airway issues. Real success needs the complete package of experts and care.”

Melanie says the improvement in her young daughter, who now is completely recovered, was “like night and day.” Elizabeth can eat and drink much better, and her diet is improving. She also has grown considerably since having the procedure, at a rate of almost two inches every six months.

Most importantly, Elizabeth's new airway allows her to breathe normally. As a result, she can now participate in activities and outdoor games with her friends. She finished her Kindergarten year with her classmates. Now, she runs around like a typical 7-year old, which is essential because she is a “social butterfly,” according to her mom. Elizabeth plans to join Miracle League Baseball in the fall.

She also loves to dance. In addition to dancing her heart out at home, Elizabeth takes part in a program offered by Children's Hospital's Center for Independence called TheraDance. It's designed for children who enjoy dancing but whose abilities limit their participation in community-based dance classes, and run by Children's physical therapists.

“We are extremely grateful to Dr. Mehta,” Melanie said, astonished at the significant improvement in her daughter’s health. She is finally able to let go of some of the fear she held before surgery. “It’s a miracle, it’s amazing,” she says.

Last Update
April 2, 2014
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Last Update
April 2, 2014