3-year-old with Down syndrome is already a model and heart ambassador

By Leslie Barker, American Heart Association News

Three-year-old Ariel Hernandez has Down syndrome and underwent heart surgery last year. (Photo courtesy of Kristal Hernandez)
Ariel Hernandez underwent heart surgery last year. (Photo courtesy of Kristal Hernandez)

Lea en español

Heart surgery can be tough. It can be stressful. And while it can lead families on a path they might not have chosen, sometimes that path guides them smack dab into a purpose.

That's what happened to Ariel Hernandez and her family.

When she was barely 2 years old, Ariel had a lifesaving operation. It was a groundbreaking procedure that her heart surgeons learned in Brazil, and news of it spread widely. A year later, Ariel has been part of television interviews with her cardiologist, Dr. James Hill, in Sacramento, California.

Even before surgery, Ariel, who also has Down syndrome, was modeling for major retailers, which she loves, said her mom, Kristal Hernandez. It's a way "to tell her own story, and to put a face and personality on a diagnosis. We want children like her to see her and say, 'That little girl looks like me!'" Kristal said.

Since the surgery, Ariel has been named a Go Red for Women ambassador for the American Heart Association in northern California. Kristal is working on a book about children undergoing heart surgery in hopes it can help young heart patients.

Ariel's twin sister, Katalina, doesn't have Down syndrome. Kristal and her husband, Matt Hernandez, didn't find out Ariel's diagnosis until the girls were born. That was followed by another revelation: Like many children with Down syndrome, Ariel also had heart issues. Her parents were told she might need surgery before she even left the hospital. Instead, she saw Hill every few months to monitor her status.

Ariel Hernandez (right) hugs her twin sister, Katalina. (Photo courtesy of Kristal Hernandez)
Ariel Hernandez (right) hugs her twin sister, Katalina. (Photo courtesy of Kristal Hernandez)

Last summer, Hill determined Ariel was old enough and big enough to have her heart repaired. The procedure involved closing two holes and repairing two valves. The typical procedure leaves a long scar from the base of the neck to the top of the abdomen. But Hill determined she was a good candidate for a new surgery in which a tiny incision is made under the right arm.

Ariel was the first girl west of the Mississippi River to undergo the procedure, which was invented in Brazil, Hill said.

"Her heart will not limit her as she grows and develops and is able to push the limits of her life," he said.

Through it all, Ariel has been a trouper, Kristal said.

"She has a smile that can light up a room," she said. "Even when she is tired or in a hospital bed, one little smile and her little chuckle are enough to keep you pushing. She has a way of staring into your eyes and connecting to your soul."

The Hernandez family on a camping trip in Wyoming. From left: Katalina, Matt, Ariel and Kristal. (Photo courtesy of Kristal Hernandez)
The Hernandez family on a camping trip in Wyoming. From left: Katalina, Matt, Ariel and Kristal. (Photo courtesy of Kristal Hernandez)

Yet Ariel's journey has included many challenges.

While her heart is doing great, she has sleep apnea and other sleeping woes, and often gets frustrated with herself. She's stubborn about learning sign language, which could help her communicate what she can't verbalize – behavior which may stem from recently diagnosed autism.

But, Kristal said, "when Ariel is happy, she is really happy."

"She's enjoying life, so she makes it easy for us to join her with that," Kristal said. "She has taught me to celebrate and to relish every milestone. She allows you to focus on smaller things, on silver linings."

Stories From the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.

If you have questions or comments about this story, please email editor@heart.org.


American Heart Association News Stories

American Heart Association News covers heart disease, stroke and related health issues. Not all views expressed in American Heart Association News stories reflect the official position of the American Heart Association.

Copyright is owned or held by the American Heart Association, Inc., and all rights are reserved. Permission is granted, at no cost and without need for further request, for individuals, media outlets, and non-commercial education and awareness efforts to link to, quote, excerpt or reprint from these stories in any medium as long as no text is altered and proper attribution is made to American Heart Association News.

Other uses, including educational products or services sold for profit, must comply with the American Heart Association’s Copyright Permission Guidelines. See full terms of use. These stories may not be used to promote or endorse a commercial product or service.

HEALTH CARE DISCLAIMER: This site and its services do not constitute the practice of medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always talk to your health care provider for diagnosis and treatment, including your specific medical needs. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem or condition, please contact a qualified health care professional immediately. If you are in the United States and experiencing a medical emergency, call 911 or call for emergency medical help immediately.