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5-year-old boy becomes 1,000th patient to get open-heart surgery at Dell Children's

The pediatric heart surgeon said the milestone was achieved faster than anticipated.

AUSTIN, Texas — It's a sign of growth for Dell Children's Medical Center. In three years' time, the Texas Center for Pediatric and Congenital Heart Disease has performed a little more than 1,000 open-heart surgeries.

Mason Willers wasn't supposed to be a milestone case. His father, Paul Willers, explained.

"We were scheduled the day before and there was some other child that needed more urgent surgery," he said.

Mason, the 5-year-old from a small town near Victoria, ended up having open-heart surgery on Friday the 13th of last month, which ended up being good luck.

"Then we ended up in the 1,000th case," said Paul Willers.

Mason has a congenital heart defect called partial atrioventricular septal defect that is now repaired. His father affectionately describes it as "a Swiss cheese heart."

Mason's parents learned about their son's heart defect when Susan Mims was 18 to 20 weeks pregnant. They knew this surgery was coming.

"I think any time you think about your kids' chests being opened up, their hearts stopped, heart cut into, I mean, these things just are your worst nightmare as a parent, or one of your worst nightmares," Paul Willers said.

"We made sure that he got to break down at the beginning, and I broke down at the end. That was a big thing," Mims said.

The parents of three young boys knew they were getting the procedure done at the Texas Center for Pediatric and Congenital Heart Disease at Dell Children's in Austin, two hours away, a center that was established by Dr. Charles Fraser in 2018.

"The children can have problems with growth; they can have problems with their activity levels, but eventually they can have heart failure problems," said Dr. Fraser.

Dr. Fraser works with a team of about 200 other surgeons, doctors, nurses and support staff. The past 18 months have not been easy on that group.

"It's been relentless. It's already hard enough to take care of someone's child with heart disease, but to have the overlay of a disease which we're still learning about, and there's a lot that's been demystified in a good sense, but it's been frightening," Dr. Fraser said.

But not even COVID-19 can stop Dr. Fraser's goal of continuing to save lives, caring for little patients like Mason who often need more than one surgery.

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