Routine Flu Shot Leads to Life-Saving Heart Surgery for Second Grader: ‘Unthinkable’ (Exclusive)

Lily Leonard, 9, learned she had a heart murmur during a flu shot appointment — and it saved her life

<p>Courtesy of Denise Leonard</p> Lily Leonard, 9.

Courtesy of Denise Leonard

Lily Leonard, 9.

Denise Leonard and her three kids had a ritual every fall — they would get their flu shots, then go pick out their Halloween costumes.

In October 2023, her daughter Lily, now 9, was looking forward to choosing her Mal costume from Disney’s Descendants. As usual, they first stopped at RWJBarnabas Health in Bayonne, New Jersey, to be seen by Dr. Vincent Serafino.

“Before he gives any vaccinations, he always gives them a once-over just to make sure that there's no ear infections, other things like that,” says Leonard, who's also mom to Lucas, 16, and Liam, 11.

But this time, the pediatrician noticed something different about Lily.

<p>Courtesy of Denise Leonard</p> Denise Leonard with her 3 children.

Courtesy of Denise Leonard

Denise Leonard with her 3 children.

“He heard that she had a heart murmur,” the Bayonne mom says.

The family was referred to a pediatric cardiologist, Dr. Donald Putman, and as Leonard says, “I was expecting a quick appointment.”

Instead, she said Putman sat with her for an hour, drawing pictures as he explained what was wrong with Lily’s heart.

Related: A Mom's Text Message Leads to Life-Changing Heart Surgery for Her 10-Year-Old Daughter (Exclusive)

Her daughter would need open-heart surgery — otherwise, as Leonard tells PEOPLE, the “unthinkable” could happen.

“He used both the medical terms and the layman's terms so that I was able to understand exactly what was going on. I remember he drew a little picture of her aorta and was able to show me that.”

What Lily had was coarctation of the aorta, which affects one in 1,800 babies in the U.S., Dr. Rajiv Verma, Pediatric and Adult Congenital Heart Disease Director at the Children’s Heart Center at Children’s Hospital of New Jersey at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, tells PEOPLE.

<p>Courtesy of Denise Leonard</p> Lily Leonard.

Courtesy of Denise Leonard

Lily Leonard.

It’s considered a “critical congenital heart defect,” Verna tells PEOPLE, because “part of the aorta is narrower than usual, which causes loss of pulses in the lower extremities.”

Vera continues, “Without surgical repair, she would have continued to live with dangerously high blood pressures and the chance that she could lose perfusion to her vital organs and lower extremities, or worst-case scenario she could die.”

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Lily’s situation was so urgent, as her mom tells PEOPLE, that “it was a month and three days from the time she was diagnosed by the cardiologist to the time she was on the operating table."

On March 8, Lily underwent a five-hour surgery, performed by Dr. Emile Bacha at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center.

But as Leonard tells PEOPLE, Lily was more upset about not playing with her basketball team than she was about the surgery.

<p>Courtesy of Denise Leonard</p> Lily Leonard.

Courtesy of Denise Leonard

Lily Leonard.

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“Her basketball team was in the championship the night of her surgery, and she was so upset that she couldn't play with her team.”

Lily asked Dr. Bacha, “‘Can I go to my game later?’” Leonard tells PEOPLE, “And instead of saying, ‘No,’ he's like, ‘We'll just see how you feel first.’”

“I appreciated that — not to dash her hopes of not being able to play in her games,” Leonard tells PEOPLE.

A month after surgery, Lily returned to school. She's still dealing with some restrictions, like no gym or recess, but has recently been cleared to resume doing dance routines with her cheer squad.

<p>Courtesy of Denise Leonard</p> Lily Leonard.

Courtesy of Denise Leonard

Lily Leonard.

“Her career goal is to be a professional cheerleader,” Leonard tells PEOPLE.

While Lily will need regular checkups, life is returning to normal for the Leonards.

“She's just like a super-normal 9-year-old girl. She loves Taylor Swift. She has a Stanley cup. She loves skincare,” Leonard says, adding that Lily should be able to go on her favorite rides at Dorney Park, an amusement park in Allentown, Penn., by this Halloween.

And of course, this fall “we'll be getting a flu shot,” Leonard says. “Absolutely.” 

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