FORSYTH COUNTY — The first thing Dustin and Jessica Hall did after their then 2-year-old daughter Mallory came out of surgery was take a stethoscope and listen to her new heart. The beat-beat-beating did not originally belong to her, but now it’s keeping her alive.
The Hall family, which also includes 6-year-old daughter Madison, lives near Windermere in south Forsyth. The couple had listened to the slow, off-beat rhythm in their daughter’s chest only a few hours before.
“There was moment where it was just me and Mallory in the hospital after I had just woken her up to tell her she’d be going into surgery,” Dustin Hall said. “It was such a quiet, surreal moment. I listened to her heart. Knowing it would be the last time.”
Mallory had come down with a virus that attacked her heart when she was 10 days old, beginning a long journey of hospital stays and doctor’s appointments.
Her heart rate was in the 200s with no sign of coming down, so she was put on a machine at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston that takes over the work of a heart.
“The damage from whatever that virus was … caused her heart to enlarge. It wasn’t getting blood pumping like it should,” he said.
Her heart was so enlarged it was the size of an adult’s, and she only weighed about 20 pounds.
After 46 days in the ICU, they took her home. But she started to show signs of a lack of energy.
“You could just tell it was starting to catch up with her. She was throwing up a lot, which is a sign of heart failure,” Hall said.
They decided to put her on the heart transplant list in the hopes of remaining at home until they received that call.
But her condition worsened, so they admitted her back into Children’s on Oct. 6, 2014.
“We totally transformed her room. We brought in those soft puzzle piece mats and put those down all over our half of the room. We brought in a computer and loaded a hard drive all with children’s movies and songs and TV shows,” Hall said. “We had tons of toys and stuff, and we got her new bedding. We made it as close as we could to home.
“That was the hardest part. Between Jessica and I [and Madison], we were splitting our time, which was the most difficult. One of us would be there for two days at a time. It felt like a shift change.”
The call came at 2 a.m. on Dec. 7, 2014.
The doctor had found Mallory the perfect pink heart. Pink, Hall said, because Mallory always said she wanted a pink one.
“I called Jessica and told her,” he said. “When she woke up and saw it was me calling, she knew exactly what I was calling for.”
About eight family members came into town for the surgery, too, with just a few hours’ notice.
Then came the new beat-beat-beating. Since then, she has hit the ground running.
“She took off and was, she was just Mallory. She always defied everything,” her father said. “Her doctors and nurses, they would all say what I see on paper doesn’t match that child. She shouldn’t be this healthy. She shouldn’t be running around.”
The afternoon after her surgery she asked for chips and cheese dip.
After being told to expect 10 days in the hospital after the transplant, they went home in five.
“When we got back, every home in our 200-something-home neighborhood had a pink heart on their mailbox,” Hall said. “She got to pick her sister up from the school bus. We hadn’t told Madison.”
The Hall family just passed the one-year anniversary of Mallory’s surgery.
“She talks about it all the time. She wanted a pink heart. She calls it her line,” Hall said of the faint surgery scar still visible along her chest.
He said her day care class was reciting the Pledge of Allegiance recently, and kids kept putting their hand on their necks or arms.
“She lifted up her shirt and pointed to her heart,” he said, “and said, ‘It’s right here! See, where my line is.’”
Hall said he and his wife were never once scared. They knew they had the best doctors and nurses, and they believed in their daughter.
But their family was not the only on their minds.
“I immediately started thinking of the donor and the donor’s family. It’s crazy to have the difference of emotions because I’m putting myself in their position. It’s the worst day of their life, and for me and my family it was the total opposite. But at the same time, it’s like you realize what an amazing gift that is,” he said. “And all the other vital organs kids could now receive from an unfortunate event.
He said they now have a family of five.
“It’s our special person that we don’t know. Anything we do, we try to get out and do it and have the most experiences as possible as a thank you to that person,” he said. “It’s a reminder every day. We live our lives a little different because of that.”