AURORA - It's likely one of the last places any little boy would want to spend his fifth birthday. But there would be no birthday for Joshua "Junior" Montoya without Children's Hospital Colorado.
At the age of four, Junior was like most other boys his age. He was growing up in New Mexico, going to school and playing baseball. That all stopped when he suddenly got sick. And what was causing his illness was a mystery that took several hospital visits to solve. After ruling out the flu and asthma, an unexpected clue on an X-ray helped doctors figure out Junior was suffering from a rare disease known as dilated cardiomyopathy.
"So, his heart is failing. And it's just unable to keep up with what his body's demands are," says Dr. Max Mitchell, Congenital Heart Surgeon at Children's Hospital.
Junior was airlifted to University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque. After a little more than a week, the decision was made to move him to Colorado for more advanced treatment. Junior was connected to a machine that does the work his heart can't do on its own.
"What he has is a Berlin heart, which actually drains the blood from his heart, so it takes all the stress of the walls of the heart and then brings it into a chamber that then pumps the blood out to his body. So, it essentially takes over the work of that muscle," explains Dr. Scott Auerbach, Medical Director of the V.A.D. program at Children's.
According to Junior's father, Josh Montoya, the machine doesn't slow his son down. In fact, dad actually struggles to keep up.
Montoya says during the day Junior will "pretty much play baseball and watch the nurses run, then go outside for walks. He likes to run, too… He makes me run with this machine."
Dr. Auerbach agrees.
"He's all over the hospital. He's riding his bike. He's shooting baskets, he's hitting the baseball. He's got the greatest smile you've ever seen. And he can probably beat anybody in the hospital at video games," Auerbach said.
At the center of those video games are some of Junior's favorite superheroes – from the Hulk to Batman and the Avengers. His dad has a theory on why Junior is such a big fan.
"There's stuff that would make me cringe, but he does it and he doesn't even cry for being five. And he goes through pain every day on a daily basis, so I think he's just acting it out – trying to be a real superhero," says Montoya.
That strength is something the whole family needs. They've been at Children's Hospital since just before Thanksgiving. It's become their home while they wait for the heart transplant Junior needs. Once Junior gets a new heart, it will be at least three months before they can return home to New Mexico.
That means the Montoyas must spend holidays at the hospital. Tuesday that came in the form of Junior's fifth birthday, a day the nurses wouldn't let pass without a celebration.
"The nurses really, really are fond of him. They've gotten to know him very well after this length of time and they've thrown together a party for Junior. Hopefully we can get him a heart for his birthday," says Maxwell.
To find out how you can help the Montoyas, visit their GoFundMe webapge, "A Heart for Hulk."
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