Two babies were born in 2018. Arkaydin Howard in Racine, Wisconsin. Peter Hernandez in Silica, Kansas. Little did either family know, their stories would soon be deeply intertwined.
Christopher and Erin Hernandez welcomed their third child, Peter, into the world on Aug. 18, 2018. He appeared healthy. But his heart wasn’t functioning correctly.
“It was a nurse that caught that he had a heart murmur,” Christopher said. “With that scan, they learned something more immediate had happened and we hadn’t really got a lot of details at that point.”
But, the hospital they were at did not have the necessary equipment to do more for Peter. After being sent to Kansas City’s Children’s Hospital, the family was informed that Peter had a congenital heart defect: aortic stenosis.
Not even two weeks old, Peter would undergo his first surgery to repair his little heart. While the surgery was initially ruled a success, Peter contracted a staph infection that would destroy the repairs.
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After open heart surgery at just four weeks old, Peter was doing better, then he wasn’t.
“On the day that we thought we were going to leave the PICU (pediatric intensive care unit), instead he went into cardiac arrest and ended up back on life support,” Erin said.
In November 2018, Peter was listed on the transplant list.
‘He was such a good boy’
That same month, Arkaydin Howard was born, on Nov. 4, but his time would be short. Arkaydin’s mother, Brittney Struebing, said when he was with her, he was a very happy baby.
“He was such a good boy,” Struebing said last November. “He was so cute, literally perfect.”
At just 3 months old, in February 2019, Arkaydin died when his father was supposed to have been looking after him. A jury found his father guilty of second-degree reckless homicide in November 2020; he was accused of having shaken the baby. He is due to be sentenced Friday.
Struebing, a young adult, was faced with a nearly impossible choice after losing her son: whether to donate her little boy’s organs. In the end, Struebing elected to donate Arkaydin’s heart with the hope of helping someone else’s baby.
His heart would answer the Hernandez family’s prayers. Christopher and Erin called it bittersweet.
“You’re literally praying for another child not to make it and, so it feels like — you’re not — but it feels like it because the greatest hope in our life at that point also meant someone else’s worst day of their life,” Erin said.
His heart beats on
Arkaydin’s heart beats on today. Peter received Arkaydin’s heart 4 months after being on the transplant list, during which time the Hernandez family had essentially become two units. Erin stayed in Kansas City with Peter at the hospital while Christopher, along the help with family and the community, took care of the couple’s other two children, Aurora and Michael.
Peter’s parents expressed gratitude for their “amazing” community that chipped in to help while the family worked towards bringing Peter home, which they did when he was almost nine months old. But for Christopher, the most amazing thing was his wife. He jokes that she could go back to school for nursing after learning so much from her experience caring for Peter.
“Erin has done a tremendous amount of work with him, because when you’re a Heart Mom, I think you’re a Heart Mom for life,” Christopher said. “Heart Mom” refers to parents of children with heart issues.
While the family has been in touch with Struebing through letters and phone calls, they met for the first time via Zoom on Tuesday. Christopher and Erin explained to their kids, now aged 3, 7 and 10, that Struebing was the “Heart Mom,” as they call her in their house.
Peter, like any 3-year-old, was playing with his “Paw Patrol” toys while wearing “Paw Patrol” footie pajamas, which he promptly showed off to Struebing.
“Thank you for my heart,” Peter said to Struebing.
Happy to meet them
Struebing said she was so happy to meet the family and to see that Peter was “so strong.” Erin and Christopher, who said Struebing was now a part of their family, are trying to find out a way for her to listen to Arkaydin’s heart again and also plan for her to visit them.
“Thank you for keeping it (Arkaydin’s heart) strong and going, so thank you to you, too,” Struebing told Peter.
After going through physical, occupational and speech therapy, Peter lives like most 3-year-olds, playing and causing mayhem for his siblings. For Christopher and Erin, hearing their other children complain about Peter is actually a good thing, since it’s “normal.”
By sharing their story, the Hernandez family said, they hope to raise awareness for the Racine community to heal from the tragedy of Arkaydin’s death and for Struebing’s situation.