Twenty-four hours after giving birth to twin girls in August, Cassidy Lexcen was told by doctors to prepare to lose one of her babies.
Teegan Lexcen was born with just one lung and hypoplastic left heart syndrome – a complex and rare heart defect that leaves the left side of the heart critically underdeveloped. Doctors in the Lexcen’s home state of Minnesota deemed the condition inoperable.
“It was devastating. We just shut down when we heard that,” Lexcen tells PEOPLE. “We took her home and prepared for the worst.”
Cassidy says she and husband Chad Lexcen chose to cherish every day they had with baby Teegan and her healthy sister Riley. Then something unexpected happened.
“We started to see her go from this small newborn that was a little on the weak side to actually showing signs of vitality,” Cassidy says. “That’s when we felt like, ‘Hey, maybe something else is going on inside of her and we should check this out.’ Why would we not try when she was doing as well as she was doing?”
Inspired by Teegan’s fight, Cassidy and her extended family began searching for doctors who could offer a new approach. As the result of these efforts, Teegan’s case was presented at a cardiac team conference at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami, Florida, in November.
“When we all looked at her X-ray, everybody in the room was kind of stunned she was still alive,” Dr. Redmond Burke, Chief of Cardiovascular Surgery at Nicklaus, tells PEOPLE. “You could see she had one lung and her heart was pushed into her left chest – that’s a lethal combination.”
Even though the case was like nothing he’d ever seen before, Burke said thinking of Teegan’s parents made him determined to find a way to help.
“Having these beautiful girls and watching one of them dying while the other one thrives – I cant imagine that,” he says. “I have three girls and watching one of them slowly die while the other ones live would just kill me.”
Hoping to get a better grasp of the situation, Burke asked Dr. Juan Carlos Muniz, Director of Cardiac MRI Imaging at Nicklaus, to produce a 3D model of Teegan’s heart.
Hours later, Muniz came back with bad news – and an idea.
Muniz told his colleague that the 3D printer was not working and handed him what looked like a small cardboard box.
The box turned out to be Google cardboard – a set of cardboard goggles that work with smartphone apps to allow viewers to see certain images in 3D. Muniz had uploaded Teegan’s CT scans to an app called SketchFab that allowed for a 3D view.
“I had never used [this technology] before and I started looking at her heart and realized we could do this,” Burke says. “I studied it for a couple nights and then I came back and said, ‘I think we can do an operation that might save her.’ ”
These were the words Cassidy had been waited to hear. “We were elated,” she recalls. “We didn t think that was ever possible, so when they said, ‘We think we can do something for her,’ that was just priceless.”
Burke had hope, and after more studying, he gained the confidence he needed to perform the surgery.
“I kept running into these roadblocks because her heart wasn’t in the normal position,” Burke says. “So by looking at her heart in 3D instead of just trying to picture a heart that I’d never seen before – a heart that nobody’s ever seen before – I could figure it out.”
On Dec. 10, Burke and the Nicklaus team completed a six-hour surgery to rebuild Teegan’s aorta, connect her pulmonary artery to her aorta and connect her heart to her right lung.
“Those were the three things we had to do to really repair her heart enough so she could live,” Burke explains.
But after the extensive surgery, lab results still showed that Teegan’s heart was too stiff and weak to resume working. The 4-month old was put back on a heart lung machine for three days. Her doctors couldn t even close the incision in her chest for fear it would cause her heart to fail.
“It was really hard,” Lexcen says of the five days her daughter’s heart remained covered by a thin plastic sheet. “It was very scary and very emotional, but we stuck by her and every day she showed us that she could do it.”
Teegan’s heart soon proved strong enough for doctors to close her incision. “Everybody felt like, ‘Wow, she’s a really tough kid,’ ” Burke says. “Every day since then she’s gotten a little bit better.”
“What I really want to see is her mom to sit down next to her bed and be able to hold her,” Burke adds. “That will be a really great day.”
Cassidy says she hopes her story will give other parents the courage to seek out a second opinion. “All it takes one out-of-the box thinker to say, ‘Hey, maybe we can fix this,’ ” she says. “We don’t want people to give up. Don’t lose hope.”