Johnathan and Tiffany Wiggins with their son Tanner Joe

February is “Heart Health Month”, and for one area family it is particularly significant. When Johnathan and Tiffany Wiggins of Ramseur learned they were expecting their first child in 2019, they shared the good news and began preparing for the birth — outfitting a nursery, selecting a name, and planning for the addition of “two little feet” to their house.

During the 20th week of pregnancy, however, doctors discovered a problem: the baby had a heart defect.

“It was heartbreaking news,” Tiffany says. “We cried all the way home.”

They began preparing in other ways—going to UNC Pediatric Cardiology for care, enlisting a medical team to be on hand at the delivery and seeking prayers.

Tanner Joe was born on Feb. 1, 2019, at UNC Hospital, and was diagnosed with a rare condition — hypoplastic left heart syndrome. Three days later, Tanner had his first heart surgery. Since then, he has had second stage heart surgery, cardiac catheterizations and has been in the hospital several times for problems expected with his complex condition. Heart health for Tanner Joe is important not just in February, but every day of the year.

Tiffany Wiggins quit her job as a nurse to stay home and care for Tanner, which is both a challenge and a blessing.

“Our hope is that he will be able to get off his feeding pump within the next few years, as he continues to progress,” she says. “He loves to say ‘dada’ now, he smiles all the time and has learned to roll over. We are so thankful and proud of him.”

The Wiggins celebrated Tanner’s first birthday on Feb. 1, with encouragement and hope. They are blessed with a close family, supportive friends, and churches that pray for him.

“We believe God is in control and there are reasons for every moment,” says Tiffany.

The road ahead has more challenges as Tanner will need another heart surgery likely between his second and third year, and a heart transplant is a strong possibility for him.

That prospect prompted his great-grandmother Carol Cummings, of Vass, to request his story to be publicized to make an appeal for transplant donors in general and for children as young as Tanner especially.  

According to the website www.organdonor.gov, more than 120,000 people in the U.S. are waiting to receive a life-giving organ transplant, and while 95 percent of U.S. adults support organ donation, only 58 percent are registered donors. Every 10 minutes, someone is added to the national transplant waiting list and 20 people die each day who were waiting for a transplant. The Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN) cites over 3,700 patients are currently awaiting heart transplants, with 64 of those being age 1 or younger and 100 others who are younger than five years old.

Dr. Mahesh Sharma, chief of Congenital Cardiac Surgery and Co-Director of the UNC Children’s Heart Center, has performed the surgeries on Tanner’s heart and monitors his condition.

“It’s estimated that 40 percent of the children with Tanner’s rare condition will ultimately need a heart transplant by age 5,” he says. “Improvements in medical care and the availability of artificial heart technology for children in the last 15 years has reduced the number of children who die waiting for a transplant from nearly 50 percent to 15 percent. If more donors would register, the number of lives lost for want of a donor would be even fewer.”

All people are potential organ and tissue donors — regardless of age. No one is too old or too young to be a deceased donor, and many people are eligible as living donors of certain types of transplants; newborns and seniors in their 90s have been organ donors.

With the possibility of needing a donor for Tanner at some point in his young life, a pediatric donor would be necessary. Pediatric donation is a difficult subject, because the loss of a child or infant is especially tragic. Authorizing an organ, eye or tissue donation of a child is particularly hard for parents. Unlike most adult donors who decide for themselves in advance of death, parents must be the decision makers for their children to be donors and most are naturally reluctant to consider the idea of their child’s possible premature death.

In 2019, however, several hundred parents made that decision according to the OPTN. As a result, more than 800 children five years old and under received transplants. Of those, more than 200 children were heart transplant recipients, made possible by parents who decided to gift their children’s hearts.

To register as an adult donor or as parents registering your children, go to the website: www.organdonor.gov/register.

Tanner Joe’s great-grandmother and his family say they will be blessed to know that his story encouraged the donors list to swell to new proportions of life-giving gifts to hundreds of people, possibly to Tanner Joe himself.

To follow his story, visit his Facebook page, “Tanner Joes Heart.”

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