THE PARENTS: Gisell Cornish, 28, and Tim Cornish, 28, of Gloucester City
THE KIDS: Isaiah Timothy, 3; Iliana Sharrell, born June 3, 2017
THE CHILDREN’S NAMES: “Isaiah” means “God’s savior,” and Iliana in Hebrew is “God has answered.” Gisell says, “That suited her. And I like Biblical names.”
Gisell is a preschool teacher, not a cardiologist, but she could tell from the ultrasound image that something was different about her daughter’s heart. There were two chambers on the left, but the right side appeared to have an extra pocket.
The Jerry Springer Show nattered away on a television in the corner; Gisell tried to focus on the screen. Half an hour crawled by. Maybe the doctors were being extra-cautious. Maybe the nurse who’d first noticed the click-click sound in Iliana’s heart, like a car running across railroad tracks, was wrong.
“When the doctor finished, he said, ‘Your daughter’s heart is not normal.’ ” Gisell broke into tears but Tim kept a tight lid on his panic. “I was kind of robotic,” he recalls. “I didn’t know how it would be if we both started crying. So I held everything inside.”
They were supposed to be taking their daughter home. Instead, Iliana spent two nights in the NICU at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center; twice, her oxygen level dropped and she turned blue. The next day, an ambulance whisked her to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; Gisell, shaky and tearful, rode with her while Tim followed.
Doctors diagnosed cor triatriatum dexter (CTD), a congenital anomaly in which a membrane divides the right atrium. At seven weeks, the baby underwent open-heart surgery to repair the defect. During the three-hour operation, Gisell and Tim wandered around Philadelphia in a daze. “We just prayed and hoped for the best,” she says.
They’d known each other since elementary school, when Gisell once hid the toilet paper in the kindergarten bathroom sink as a joke on Tim. “We never really hung out,” she says. “We were 5 years old. But I always had a crush on him.”
The two lost touch when Gisell’s family moved to Audubon, then to Cherry Hill, but they reconnected through MySpace when both were high school juniors.
He had the same baby face he’d had as a child. She was still shy. They’d missed rough patches in each other’s lives: Tim had become a hot-headed teen, and Gisell had gone to live with her mother’s boyfriend after her mom developed symptoms of schizophrenia.
The night before Gisell left for college, Tim showed up at 11 p.m. with a spray of flowers and a marriage proposal. He’d sold his Xbox to buy her a diamond ring. “I basically said yes but that I wanted to wait until after college.”
By the time Gisell was a sophomore at Rutgers-Camden, the two were living together; she studied and worked at JCPenney; he had jobs at Domino’s, then Pizza Hut, then Radio Shack. “I was paying my own bills, going to school full-time, and working full-time,” Gisell says. “I felt more mature than other students.”
She’d graduated, and the two were saving money for a wedding when she realized she was pregnant. She nudged Tim out of a sound sleep. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to be dreaming,’ ” he recalls. “Then a lot of things fell through my mind: I’m happy … but why now?”
It was an easy pregnancy; Gisell was even able to eat beef, pork, and dairy products, foods she usually avoided because they were triggers for irritable bowel syndrome. “I could eat everything and it didn’t bother me.” She watched YouTube videos to learn breathing techniques for childbirth, and Tim gave her daily massages.
Isaiah arrived one day late, after eight hours of labor and just 14 minutes of pushing. “They placed him on my chest. He didn’t cry like most babies. He was so peaceful, just looking around. The doctor said, ‘I almost forgot he was here.’ ”
Tim remembers the first time he locked eyes with his son. “He looked at me, and he nodded. I know he didn’t know what he was doing, but, oh, man.”
Isaiah was a year old the day Gisell stepped out of the shower to see a message scrawled in the mirror steam: “Will you marry me?” This time, her answer was, “Of course.”
They’d always envisioned a wedding in Jamaica, ever since falling in love with the place — the weather, the people, the jerk chicken — on a trip after Gisell’s college graduation. Close family and friends joined them in a seven-bedroom villa with a view of the sea.
Gisell wanted a second child; she had her fingers crossed for a girl. And once she was pregnant, Tim felt confident: for generations, going back to his great-grandparents, people in his family had given birth first to a son, then a daughter.
Isaiah came along for the ultrasound. “I’m having a girl!” he exulted. Later, after hearing his parents speculate about whom the baby might resemble — “maybe she’ll look like daddy, but with my complexion,” Gisell had said — he climbed into their bed in the middle of the night to whisper, “Mommy, I want a brown sister.”
When Iliana was born, they tried to explain her condition in language a 3-year-old could comprehend: “Your sister is going to have a boo-boo on her heart.” When Isaiah visited the hospital after Iliana’s surgery, and Gisell left both children in the care of a friend so she could run to a restroom, Isaiah gave the friend a watchful glare. “You be careful with my baby,” he said.
They all are: Gisell was fearful of touching Iliana at first, worried that breastfeeding would dislodge the stitches or hurt the incision. Tim, who massages the scar twice a day, for two minutes at a time, still feels unnerved by the sight and feel of his daughter’s tiny chest.
But he remembers the surgeon’s words — “She’s strong!” — at their post-op appointment. He remembers when, after nine weeks of not being allowed to hold Iliana, medical staff finally gave him the thumbs-up.
“Are you done?” Tim asked the physical therapist that day. Then he scooped up his daughter, the baby with the mended place in her heart, and hugged her to his chest.