At only 24-days old, Thomas Ortega is already fighting to stay alive.
Marissa Tucker-Ortega and her husband, Tommy Ortega, Thomas’ parents, have been wondering and worrying about their son even before he was born. Today, and since the day after he was born, Thomas has been treated for numerous life-threatening ailments at the Children’s Hospital in Colorado.
His mom has rarely left his side, and the family can hardly wait for the day Thomas’ big brother, 2-year-old Wesley, can meet him, and they can return home to Belen.
From the beginning of Marissa’s pregnancy, her doctors didn’t have much hope for Thomas. The couple had become pregnant while she was on an IUD, and an early ultrasound indicated the baby was not developing normally.
“In the beginning, they wanted me to terminate,” Marissa said. “There was no heartbeat, and they thought it was an ectopic pregnancy.”
Termination was never an option for the Ortegas, so the couple got a second opinion. This time, the doctor was more hopeful.
This doctor informed them Marissa wasn’t as far along in her pregnancy as initially thought, and the baby just needed time to grow.
“We were very scared,” Marissa said. “We were surprised that I was even pregnant. We prayed a lot, and once we realized we were on the right track, things seemed to get better.”
From the beginning, Marissa’s pregnancy was considered high risk because she had suffered from preeclampcia during her first pregnancy. On top of that, Marissa was forced to go to each doctor’s appointment alone because of the restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In June, Marissa went in for her 20-week ultrasound. During the test, the technician left the room. A few minutes later, the doctor came in and watched the ultrasound for himself.
“He left the room to make a phone call,” Marissa remembers. “He came in and told me that he was really sorry but (the baby’s) heart did not develop right.
“He asked if I wanted to speak to a genetic counselor and gave us option to terminate.”
Again, she refused to terminate the pregnancy. The doctor told her if the baby was born, he would require multiple surgeries.
“When he told me, I remember crying and begging for them to let my husband in,” Marissa said. “I was a mess.”
A few weeks later, she had more tests, which revealed Thomas had Dextro-Transposition of the Great Arteries, which is a birth defect of the heart in which the two main arteries carrying blood out of the heart — the main pulmonary artery and the aorta — are switched in position. He also had VSD, ventricular septal defect, meaning he had holes in his heart.
After speaking with a pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon at Presbyterian Hospital, Marissa and her family had a game plan. She was told he could have his surgeries in Albuquerque once he was born.
With a due date of Nov. 10, Marissa and Tommy scheduled a cesarean for Nov. 3. During the following weeks, the family prepared for what was to come. They were to deliver in Albuquerque, they had met with the Newborn Intensive Care Unit doctors and went over what they should expect.
As the weeks went by, Marissa and Tommy were worried about what was to come, but they continued to have hope — hope that the doctors would be able to successfully treat their son.
Then it happened. It was Sunday, Oct. 4, and Tommy, Marissa and Wesley were visiting at Tommy’s mother, Melissa. Tommy was having fun on the 4-wheeler, and Marissa was sitting outside when she began having contractions. At first she thought they were Braxton Hicks contractions (false labor), but when she went to the bathroom, she knew it was time.
“I was having contractions that took my breath away,” she said. “I was standing there and (the contractions) took me aback for a minute. Then my water broke.”
Yelling for someone to get her husband, she realized it was time. The Ortegas left their son with his grandma, and they went home to prepare for the trip to the hospital.
“I didn’t have anything packed or anything ready for myself,” Marissa said. “I got the baby’s bag, and my husband grabbed me a towel and we left.
“I was so scared because I was only 34 weeks. Tommy and I were full of anxiety.”
Even though they knew what was to come, they still weren’t ready for reality. Emotionally, the couple was drained.
It wasn’t until the next day that Thomas was born via C-section. Marissa remembers her husband sitting next to her during the surgery, and when the baby was born, blue in color from a lack of oxygen, she remembers thinking how much he looked like his brother, Wesley.
Tommy and Marissa were only able to see Thomas for a quick few minutes before he was rushed to the NICU. A few hours later, Marissa was able to be wheeled in to see her son.
“He was beautiful laying there,” she remembers. “They had placed him on a ventilator, but they said he was doing well.”
Marissa was then taken to the maternity ward, where she was able pump breast milk for her son. She was told the only way she was going to be able to see Thomas again is if she refused narcotics for pain and if she ate — and that’s exactly what she did.
“I kept bugging and bugging, telling them I wanted to see my son,” Marissa said. “They told me he had to go through a few more tests before I could see him.”
It wasn’t until 7 p.m. that night that they got news about Thomas. It wasn’t good.
The doctors had also diagnosed the baby with coarctation of the aorta, which is a narrowing or constriction in a portion of the aorta. They also told her he had another hole on the top of his heart.
“They told us they thought it was too much for them to handle, and it made the surgery a lot more complicated,” Marissa said. “That’s when they told us they would be sending him to Denver.”
Tommy drove home to Belen to start packing and getting everything in order for them to leave. At about 10:30 p.m. that night, Marissa was finally able to visit Thomas in the NICU. While she wasn’t able to hold him, she spent several hours by his bedside playing lullabies on her phone.
“I talked to him for a long time,” Marissa said. “I just sat there admiring him.”
Early the next morning, she learned they would be transporting her son to Colorado that day. During the wait, more complications set in. Air had made its way into the baby’s body cavity, and his left lung had collapse after the procedure to draw the air out.
“They put in a chest tube while we were waiting for life-flight to get here,” Thomas’ mother said.
As she waited and waited, Tommy was still at home trying to get things ready and making arrangements for work. It was 4 p.m. when the life-flight nurse came, and told her they couldn’t take Marissa on the flight because she had just had a C-section.
“I called Tommy hysterical because they were taking our son to Denver without me,” Marissa said. “I was very emotional. I didn’t know what to do.”
Immediately, Marissa booked the next flight from Albuquerque to Denver, but when Tommy dropped her off at the airport, she had missed the flight by just a couple of minutes.
Not one to give up, Marissa booked a second flight that would take her to Las Vegas, Nev., where her sister-in-law, Layla Lucero, met her.
“She brought me a bag of clothes, Tylenol and ibuprofen,” she said. “She even bought a ticket to Denver so she could fly with me. It was a big relieve to know I didn’t have to go alone.”
When Marissa landed in Denver, she took an Uber to the hospital, where she found out they had to quarantine in his room because he had to take a COVID-19 test. It was 11 hours later the negative results came in. By this time, Tommy, his mother and little Wesley had driven to Denver.
“I was able to leave the hospital and take a shower,” Marissa said. “And Tommy was able to come in and finally see his son.”
A few days later, Thomas’ doctors took him off the ventilator and Tommy and Marissa were finally able to hold him.
“Tommy held him first for 30 minutes, and I was able to give him a sponge bath,” Marissa said. “He had a lot of stimulation, but they had to reintubate him. That was the first time we were able to hold him.”
Thomas’ open-heart surgery was scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 13, and they were told it would last about 11 hours. Throughout the day, the family would receive word from the OR nurse about Thomas’ progress. As the hours went on, the couple’s family, including Marissa’s parents, Aaron and Amanda Tucker, and Tommy’s folks, Tommy and Melissa Ortega, who had driven in from New Mexico, went back to their hotel as the new parents waited. It was about 8:30 p.m. when they finally got word — but it wasn’t want they wanted to hear.
“They told us he was out of surgery but they were doing everything they could,” she said. “He had lost a lot of blood, and he had coded. They were doing CPR.
“Tommy and I were hysterical. We didn’t know what was going on other than our son was getting CPR. I just remember telling that lady to go save my baby.”
When the surgeon finally came out to talk to the family, he told them it had gone as planned, but that he could only close one of three holes in Thomas’ heart. He also told the Ortegas their son had developed an arrhythmia, he had lost a lot of blood and they couldn’t get his blood to clot or coagulate. He had gone into shock.
“We finally got an update, but not the update we wanted,” Marissa said. “We were not expecting these kind of complications.”
When they were finally able to go into see their son, he was surrounded by doctors and nurses.
“My son was laying there. He didn’t look like my son,” Marissa said. “He was so swollen and extremely pale. He looked like a little rag doll.”
The doctor sat them down, telling them his heart rate and blood pressure were dropping, and was loosing a lot of blood through his chest tube. The only thing they could do was put him on a life support machine and wait.
“We just prayed to God that he would do everything he could to save our son,” Marissa said. “We prayed for the medical team caring for Thomas, for God to watch over them as they cared for our son.”
The minutes turned to hours and then to days. During this time, Thomas continued to have arrhythmias, each time having to be shocked into a regular heart rhythm.
As the days passed, Thomas began to respond to treatment. Today, he’s on less than half the medication he was initially given, but continues to have arrhythmias.
“They were finally able to take off his ventilator on Sunday,” Marissa said on Monday. “His lungs still aren’t ready, so they have him on a CPAP machine. I’m holding him right now. It’s nice. He’s already 21 days old and only my third time holding him.”
Marissa said Thomas is still in ICU, and they’re still monitoring his arrhythmia, keeping an eye on his blood pressure and a few more things.
“The prognosis is good, but it’s going to be a slow recovery. But he’s a totally different baby,” she said. “He’s going to be here for a while. There’s still has a lot of things he has to go through — a lot of therapy.”
Even though they don’t know when they’ll be able to come home, Marissa hopes they’ll be able to bring Thomas home in time for Christmas.
Two fundraising accounts have been established for the family including at the State Employees Credit Union under Thomas A. Ortega Donation Account; and a GoFundMe account under “Baby Thomas Needs Lifesaving Open Heart Surgery.”
Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.