MassGeneral Hospital for Children News

At 29 weeks, Sophia O'Brien was born with multiple medical issues. But with help from her MassGeneral Hospital for Children team, she has grown into a healthy ballerina.

Sophia's Story

15/Mar/2010

“I remember that day quite vividly,” Carissa Caramanis O’Brien recalls of her first ultrasound, nine weeks into her pregnancy. “It was described to us that there was likely something wrong.”

Doctors had discovered a cystic hygroma, or fluid-filled lesion, along the base of her baby’s neck and spine, which is often a sign of a chromosomal problem or birth defect when present in the womb.   

Fortunately, 10 days later, another test was negative for chromosomal abnormalities, but the O’Briens were not yet in the clear. When doctors discovered a potential heart defect in the baby at 20 weeks, they sent Carissa O’Brien to see a cardiologist at MassGeneral Hospital for Children.

Four weeks later, doctors saw a bubble in the ultrasound, which indicated a duodenal web, or an obstruction in the baby’s bowel. That was when they called upon surgeon Peter Masiakos, MD, and set up a date to plan the surgeries that they knew would be necessary for their little girl.

Early Arrival

Sophia as a newborn

“Having the nurses that we did in the NICU gave me every confidence to walk out at night knowing that there was someone there who would care for her as I would,” O’Brien says. “Sophia still knows them today as her ‘NICU aunties.’”

They didn’t have a chance to make that plan, because O’Brien went into labor at 29 weeks. Sophia O’Brien arrived five and a half days later, via cesarean section. Carissa O’Brien had suffered a placental abruption, when the placenta pulls away from the lining of the uterus. She says she is grateful that she was at MGHfC when it happened; doctors said it could have otherwise been fatal for both O’Brien and her baby.

When Carissa O’Brien awoke after surgery, she turned to her husband, Chris, and asked, “How is she?”

O’Brien recalls her husband’s response: “She’s beautiful and she’s strong.” Chris O’Brien showed his wife two photos that nurses in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) had taken for her, one in which Sophia wore her father’s wedding band around her wrist.

In the Best Hands

“People assume that you have a two-and-a-half pound baby, then you must naturally be fearful that you’re going to lose her,” Carissa O’Brien says. “That just wasn’t the case for us. We saw her strength from the very beginning.”

O’Brien says she did not fear the worst in part for her natural grace under pressure, but also for her instinct that she was in good hands at MGHfC.

Sophia and her mother, Carissa Caramanis O'Brien, examine a ladybug.

Sophia and her mother, Carissa Caramanis O'Brien, examine a ladybug.


“The thing about the physicians at Mass General is that you immediately know their talent and their experience, and then they have a way of speaking very calmly but intelligently to you, making you aware of their decisions, but also making you part of those decisions as it’s appropriate, and that puts you at ease,” O’Brien says, adding, “I think it’s more so a confidence that they immediately inspire in you so that you can be calm and know that you’re in the best hands.”

Dr. Masiakos operated on Sophia’s bowel when she was six days old, and remained an integral part of her care team, as Sophia struggled to develop normal digestion.

“He’s an incredibly skilled surgeon, but his most endearing quality is the care with which he practices, and the effort he always makes to show an interest in the person as well as the patient. Any time I had any issue or concern, I would just call or email him, and he would get back to me right away, and you knew he genuinely cared,” O’Brien says of Dr. Masiakos.

Sophia was in the NICU for more than three months. During that time O’Brien says she came to know and trust the NICU staff, led by Jonathan Cronin, MD, including the nurses.

“Having the nurses that we did in the NICU gave me every confidence to walk out at night knowing that there was someone there who would care for her as I would,” O’Brien says. “Sophia still knows them today as her ‘NICU aunties.’”

Months later, Sophia’s cardiologist coordinated her heart surgery at a local hospital, and just a month afterward, Dr. Masiakos removed the gastrointestinal tube in Sophia’s stomach. Several months later would see a much more routine procedure, when Dr. Leila Mankarious at nearby Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary inserted ear tubes.

“By the time she was getting ready for her second birthday, it was like nothing happened,” O’Brien says.

Healthy Ballerina

Today, Sophia is an energetic, healthy 3-year-old, and an aspiring ballerina.

Today, Sophia is an energetic, healthy 3-year-old, and an aspiring ballerina.

Today, Sophia visits Dr. Masiakos occasionally for any digestive issues, and sees a cardiologist annually-- the rest of the time, she is an energetic, healthy 3-year-old, and an aspiring ballerina.

After a recent ballet class, Sophia flitted about in her pastel blue leotard, pink tights and sparkly sneakers. Her curious eyes missed nothing, and she spotted a ladybug across the room. With charming determination, she convinced her mother to retrieve the insect from its place and put it in Sophia’s hand.

As her mother brought it closer, Sophia’s squealed in pretend fright; but she recovered, and the two shared a moment examining the tiny creature.

“Mothers typically react to every scrape and bump. We’ve made it through much more than the scrapes and bumps and I’m grateful for that perspective,” O’Brien says. “I really learned some tremendous skills as far as caring for her, in the NICU.”

A professional communications consultant to healthcare companies and nonprofits, Carissa O’Brien was inspired to become certified as an Emergency Medical Technician after her experience with Sophia.

She says of the care both she and Sophia received, “I’m grateful that we have Mass General in our backyard.”

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