The first thing you notice about 11-year-old Zander Zatylny is his cheeky smile and comedic personality. He tells an endless stream of jokes and has a deep passion for playing sports, specifically football and hockey. Literally and figuratively, he puts his heart and soul into everything in his life.
Zander was born with a rare type of congenital heart disease called truncus arteriosus. It occurs when the blood vessel coming out of the heart fails to separate in a developing baby, leaving only one connection between the aorta and pulmonary artery.
This meant Zander had a single main blood vessel to carry blood away from his heart to the rest of his body instead of the required two vessels.
Not only is truncus arteriosus extremely demanding for the heart as it works harder to pump blood, but the singular blood vessel can often become thickened and narrowed, blocking the flow of blood.
Zander would not have been able to survive if his heart was left in this condition. If immediate action had not been taken, his heart would have suffered irreversible damage. At 22 days old, he underwent his first open heart surgery. By age one, a milestone birthday for most children, Zander’s parents Chrystal and Steve were preparing for his second open heart surgery to correct a narrowing of his aortic valve. “By his first year of age his heart was already working too hard,” his mom Chrystal recalls.
Since then, Zander has had numerous surgeries and procedures as he keeps outgrowing his repairs. Zander is a growing boy and procedures can only accommodate his heart for so long until it changes size and shape as part of his normal development. Every few years, adjustments must be made as his body continues to grow.
On November 29, 2011, Zander underwent a procedure called a balloon angioplasty and stent insertion to improve blood flow to and from his heart. A balloon angioplasty involves using a thin tube with a tiny balloon at the tip to re-open and restore blood flow in a blocked vessel. A stent is a small mesh-like device placed inside a vessel to keep it open.
This successful operation allowed Zander to return to his regular daily activities until November 11, 2013 when once again he needed a balloon angioplasty, this time, with six more stents inserted.
“If you know Zander, you would never know that anything is wrong with him,” says Steve. “Despite the fact that his scars tell a story, Zander doesn’t let that define who he is or what he does in life. He continues to live each day like any other young boy.”
This year, Zander’s heart needed to be extensively reconstructed in a third open heart surgery. Previous repairs, that had kept his heart functioning, were now too small for him.
Zander’s condition has been hard on his family. “It’s very emotional,” says Chrystal. “I think every parent who has a child going into surgery would say it’s a roller coaster of emotions. We knew it was coming so this open heart surgery has been hanging over our heads for the last two years.”
Zander, on the other hand, was actually eager for his surgery so he could get right back to playing hockey and football. “I’m feeling pumped, I’m just really excited to get it over with,” Zander says with his signature smile. “I’m not scared because I trust the doctors at CHEO.”
Today, Zander is doing well. He loves to dream of a future in acting, recites song lyrics with his own creative spin and is a big brother and role model to his sister, Charley. Zander’s heart will always need regular follow-ups with a cardiologist. He will also need future procedures as he gets older, but that doesn’t stop him from inspiring everyone with his strength as he continues to face life with spirit and style.