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Big op for 'wee Joe', baby who moved readers

By Victoria O'Hara

Baby Joe Degnan – the little boy who helped launch the Belfast Telegraph baby heart campaign – will undergo a major heart operation this month.

Speaking ahead of his surgery, mum Kerri, from Larne, Co Antrim, spoke of how well her son – now nine months old – was doing despite being born with congenital heart disease.

"We are watching him grow up every day," she said.

"He's just developing his wee character and is full of beans, he is into everything!"

Joe, who was born last August, is one of hundreds of babies affected in Northern Ireland each year.

He was born with double inlet left ventricle. Babies with this condition have only one working pumping chamber (ventricle) in their heart.

This means he suffers a lack of oxygen to his blood and major organs that can lead to breathlessness, which makes it difficult to feed.

He underwent surgery when he was just six days old.

And the striking image of his chest being kept together with a plaster after the operation struck a chord with the public.

The picture launched the Christmas campaign which supported the Chest, Heart and Stroke Help Our Babies' Hearts appeal.

It raised thousands of pounds to fund major research in Belfast aimed at discovering why some children are born with problems in the way their heart has formed.

Now 'wee Joe', as he is affectionately known, will travel with his parents on May 27 to Birmingham Children's Hospital.

He will undergo his operation two days later.

"It is just part of what has to happen," Kerri said.

"We always said that Joe's heart condition would not define him, and it doesn't.

"As he grows so will his heart, and so the surgery will just need to be adapted."

Kerri, a civil servant, and dad William, a plumber, knew their first baby would be born with heart problems after his condition was spotted during a 26-week scan.

"He is a normal wee boy. It's great to see he is developing so well," she said.

Kerri (32) said Joe would go through three stages of operations, so this will be his second.

"We know the team and they are fantastic – as are the team at the Royal."

Kerri also spoke of how the public embraced the appeal.

"The last year or so really has been a rollercoaster. We were overwhelmed, the awareness and money raised for research was just amazing."

Congenital heart disease is the most common birth defect in children born in Northern Ireland with, on average, 250 children a year born with one.

Roughly one-third of these children will require open heart surgery or other interventional procedures.

It's not known what causes it. It is, however, known that viral infections can interfere with the development of the baby's heart.

Heredity factors can also play a role in congenital heart disease, which develops in the womb.

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