Fetal surgery saved my daughter’s life and inspired millions

My name is Dowaa Saleh. I was raised in Iraq, my childhood etched against a backdrop of conflict and war, but despite those challenges, it was also an experience that taught me resilience. This resilience was not just about surviving; it was about thriving, so I worked hard to become a dental surgeon and pioneered the use of social media for health advocacy.

Despite facing threats and sexism, I was the first female healthcare professional from my region to harness social media to combat health misinformation and advocate for women’s and children’s health rights at a time when showing a woman’s face or using her real name was a rarity on those platforms. I am proud to say that it made a substantial impact on the lives of millions of women.

And yet, while my professional journey saw me achieve success, my personal journey saw me facing infertility and pregnancy loss until we were blessed with our daughter, Leen, a joy after so much sorrow. Naively, I expected everything to go well in my next pregnancy, too. 

It did not.

The moment we learned our baby might not survive until birth

At 20 weeks into my second pregnancy, during a routine ultrasound, my world came crashing down. It all started with one sentence: “There’s something wrong with your baby’s heart.” 

We learned that our baby had a rare and life-threatening congenital heart defect (CHD), Pulmonary atresia with an intact septum. What does this mean? Well, the valve that connects the heart and lung is closed so the right side of the heart stops growing. This meant our child might not survive until birth and, if she did, would require multiple surgeries to live with the condition, with a strong possibility that she might never lead a normal life. And we were told there was nothing we could do to prevent it. 

Coming from a background hardened by war, my husband and I had always prided ourselves on our strength. We were taught to face life’s harshest realities without shedding a tear and to stand firm when the world around us crumbled. Yet, that night, after hearing the dire prognosis of our unborn child, my husband and I found ourselves breaking. I cried nonstop for hours until I couldn’t anymore.

A glimmer of hope from… Grey’s Anatomy

Suddenly, inexplicably, distressed and alone in the darkness, a scene from the hit TV show Grey’s Anatomy flashed through my mind – a scene when Dr. Arizona and Dr. DeLuca were doing surgery on a baby inside the womb in an attempt to save that baby’s life.

It was a flashback that changed everything. Maybe there WAS a chance to save our baby’s life after all, and we were determined to do anything in our power to make it happen. So we set off on a 7,000-mile odyssey to Cleveland, Ohio, where we met our real-life “Dr. McDreamy” – the cardiologist and healthcare hero Dr. James Strainic, who saw a chance where others saw the end.

Life-saving fetal heart surgery made our daughter an example of success

The groundbreaking surgery that awaited Nadine in Ohio was a testament to medical innovation. It offered a lifeline for our daughter, whose heart started growing again, showcasing the remarkable advances in CHD care and treatment.

Our daughter’s case helped change the way we treat fetal heart issues, inspiring doctors to recommend life-saving fetal heart surgeries, and that’s why we named her Nadine, a French name that means hope.

Nadine is now a vibrant, unstoppable force, a true “baby boss” whose stories we share through our platform, Nadine’s Heart. She’s a shining example of resilience, a warrior in every sense of the word, and she embodies the resilience and tenacity of every individual – young and old – fighting their own battles against CHD.

We are sharing Nadine’s story of hope and resilience to support other families

We have shared our story widely, including on our Nadine’s Heart Instagram platform, where we raise awareness of CHD/fetal heart surgery and advocate for healthcare innovation that is essential for saving young lives in conditions that affect 1 in every 100 babies.

We could never have foreseen the global impact of Nadine’s journey. From inspiring millions on social media to appearing in international news headlines in different languages, appearing on Good Morning America, meeting the very Grey’s Anatomy actor whose scene guided our path, and being nominated for Emmy Awards, our private battle became a public beacon of hope. 

Miracles are real

This story isn’t just about a girl named Nadine. It’s about every child, every parent, and every healthcare worker fighting an unseen battle. It’s about the capacity of the human heart to love and to heal beyond the confines of what seems possible.

We want to light a path for others, to offer a glimmer of hope in the darkest of times, and to remind everyone that miracles are not just tales from ancient texts or scenes from TV shows. They are real, they are among us, and they can lead to a miracle.


The honest talk