World Down Syndrome Day: American Heart Association Ambassador and Model Ariel Hernandez Spreads Awareness

By Alicia Lindberg

Did you know it’s World Down Syndrome Day (WDSD) on March 21? This third month signifies the triplication or trisomy of the 21st chromosome that causes Down syndrome. To spread awareness for WDSD, Risen caught up with Kristal Hernandez — the mother of Ariel Hernandez, model and ambassador for the American Heart Association.

Approximately half of all infants born with Down syndrome have a congenital heart defect, and Ariel was the first person on the West Coast to undergo a groundbreaking new heart surgery that her mom says “will offer hope to not only children with Down syndrome but to millions of American with congenital heart defects as well.”

1.3 million Americans alive today have some form of congenital heart defect and at least nine of every 1,000 infants born each year have a heart defect. Ariel had an atrial septal defect and ventricular septal defect that needed repair. These holes in the heart are common for individuals who have Down syndrome, and many babies undergo open-heart surgery as infants in the NICU. “Ariel was blessed to have this miracle flap of skin in between her heart chambers that slowed down her blood flow and allowed her to wait for surgery till age two,” explained Hernandez. But only one other person in the United States had received the cutting-edge surgery that Ariel needed, “So reassuring myself surgeons do these every day wasn’t quite applicable,” said Hernandez.

The alternative heart surgery meant Ariel would need to have her ribs broken which carried another set of risks and would leave a large scar. Hernandez asked herself, “If they cut her ribs, can I devote myself, so they heal correctly? How will I manage her twin sister? Will her scar embarrass or define her?” Hernandez decided to put her faith in God and the surgeon who graduated from Stanford with training in Brazil on a technique where he would go in between the ribs on the right side to get to the heart on the left side. Ariel’s surgery was scheduled in the summer of 2020 during COVID, but fortunately, they allowed Hernandez and her husband to ride out the ten-hour day in a special waiting room of their own.

They arrived at the hospital at 5 a.m. Though it was early morning and Ariel was covered in tubes, she loved all the attention from the nurses and picture-taking from mom. Hernandez couldn’t stop taking pictures because she was, “scared it could be the last one of Ariel.” Ariel settled into her mom’s arm, and Mom coveted all the snuggles. “I memorized the sound and rhythm of her breathing. I counted every eyelash that was perfectly placed on her almond-shaped eyes. My mind raced. Is this the right decision?” Hernandez asked herself. The nurses fought over who was going to take Ariel into surgery because she is “always the charmer.” Ariel willingly went into the nurse’s arms and Hernandez watched her daughter’s smiling face until it disappeared behind the doors.

Finally, the nurse came in and shared that Ariels’s surgery was successful. “The fog holding me down lifted and I was so happy! I couldn’t wait to see her!” exclaimed Hernandez. Ariel was still sedated and hooked up to what seemed like hundreds of machines. The surgeons repaired Ariel’s AV Canal defect through her right side under her arm, which is called a right mini-thoracotomy approach. Typically, it is through sternotomy, through the chest. This procedure is specific to Sutter Hospital Downtown. Not only is the scarring minimal but the recovery is faster, as the ribs did not have to be cut. Ariel had spacers put in between her ribs and her right lung was deflated. The surgeons then repaired her heart. Typically, patients have to stay in the hospital a week or longer, but Hernandez was thanking the Lord that Ariel got to go home after four nights!

For more information on Ariel’s recovery, work with the American Heart Association, and modeling career, you can find her on Instagram: @The_Amazing_Ariel_H_Official

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