38 | Spring 2017
n 1995, Kristen Holihan got a wonderful Christmas
present four days early — the birth of her son, Tyler
Matesen. But she would not take him home until after the
new year, and then with overwhelming fear and anxiety.
Doctors detected a murmur in the newborn’s heart
and suggested that Kristen get him checked out at the local
children’s hospital after the holiday weekend. But the 30-year-
old new mother didn’t want to wait and took Tyler directly to
It was a good thing she didn’t wait — at 2 days old, her son
had dangerously low oxygen levels and would need immediate
surgery for critical congenital heart defects. “If we had taken
him straight home, he might not have made it,” she said.
Tyler had pulmonary valve stenosis, a narrowing of the
pulmonary valve that can make it difficult for blood to move
from the heart to the lungs to pick up oxygen. He also had
four holes in his heart: one in a lower chamber and three in
the upper chambers.
Doctors tried to open the valve and increase blood flow,
but were unsuccessful. The next day, Tyler underwent two
heart surgeries as doctors tried to get his tiny heart working
properly, ultimately adding a shunt to allow more blood to
pass to the lungs to get oxygen.
More than a month and six procedures later, including
three open-heart surgeries, Tyler was able to go home, a
prospect that terrified his mother.
“I wanted him to come home with every monitor they
could give me, but the doctors told me, ‘You’ll never learn to
live without them otherwise,’” she said. “I was so afraid that
something would happen at home and in my care. Needless
to say, his first birthday was a huge celebration.”
In 2001, Tyler’s sister Makenna was born with
congenital heart defects. “When they told us she had a
heart murmur, I fell apart,” Kristen said. “I couldn’t believe
it was happening again.”
Like Tyler, Makenna had pulmonary valve stenosis and a
ventricular septal defect, but her condition wasn’t as severe
and has not required surgery.
Tyler met regularly with a cardiologist, but mostly grew up
as a regular kid in Sacramento, California. He played soccer
and joined Little League, making time to rest if he got tired.
Though none of his teammates knew his history, “I noticed
I didn’t have the energy all of my friends had while going
through puberty,” he said. “It was like having all of this gas you
need for a fire, but no oxygen in order for it to catch.”
He didn’t like swimming because it meant he had to
explain his scars.
By age 14, Tyler was tiring more easily. An
annual checkup showed his oxygen levels had
dropped. His pulmonary valve had been removed
completely as a newborn. Surgery was now
scheduled to replace his pulmonary valve with a
porcine valve and to close the three holes in the
upper heart chambers.
Though he was nervous about the surgery,
Tyler was soon back to wake-boarding and long-boarding. Within six months, he shaved three
minutes off of the time it took him to run a mile
in gym glass. “I could finally keep up with my
friends,” he said.
Now 20 years old, Tyler wants to be an example
for pediatric congenital heart patients and show them
what they can overcome. “I want other heart patients
to know that nothing can stop you from doing what
Life Is Why