Big Jimmy and Baby Caleb

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SARAH J. GLOVER / Staff Photographer Cardiologist Gil Wernovsky talks with Jimmy Axten, 24, of Egg Harbor Township, and his mother, Marita, at Children’s Hospital. Axten is among the world’s earliest survivors of hypoplastic left heart syndrome. He benefited from groundbreaking surgery at the time. Caleb Reed, 4 months, recently had heart surgery.

In many respects, the two patients we visited May 19 in the cardiac intensive-care unit were as different as night and day, although both were recovering from surgeries for the same heart defect, hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS).

Jimmy Axten, who's 24 and among the world's earliest survivors of the defect, is robust and funny, a Port Richmond native who has moved to South Jersey but kept the neighborhood swagger.

When we met him, two days after his surgery for a heart-valve replacement, Axten was eager to get out of bed and roam the unit as the poster boy - a poster man, really - for the idea that vulnerable open-heart-surgery babies can grow up big and strong.

Caleb Reed, at 4 months old, was closer to the size of a newborn. He'd had open-heart surgery here shortly after he was born and was back for a follow-up operation that HLHS babies now receive. Still recuperating, Caleb wore prongs in his nose to supply his little body with oxygen.

Caleb's family is from rural Bath County, Va., where his dad, Charles, is a minister - and it's no Port Richmond. Bath County doesn't even have a traffic light, although there is a blinking light in neighboring Highland County.

What Jimmy and Caleb share is the outrageous good fortune to be alive, thanks to innovative HLHS care pioneered at Children's Hospital.

Jimmy's mom, Marita Axten, is no preacher. But she had a benediction for Caleb's dad and the worried parents of other infants in the cardiac ICU. "What I want to say to all the parents," she said, "is, 'keep your hopes alive. I have my Jimmy right here.' "

"This is my miracle child," Axten said. "He's 24 years old."   - Becky Batcha

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