The Heart of a Fighter

June 19, 2019
Topics: Donors, Heart (cardiology), Riley Kid Story

river image
River Harbin, Otwell, Ind.

Given only an 18 percent chance of survival before birth, 4-year-old River Harbin from Otwell, Ind., proves to be a fighter. 

It took him only 48 hours after receiving a new heart on May 29, 2019, to get up and walk around his room.

And last week, he “busted out” of Riley as staff members lined the hallway to send him off with singing, cheering and applause.


River’s heart hero journey began right after he was born in 2015. He immediately went to Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health, where doctors diagnosed him with cardiomyopathy. When he was just 7 days old, River underwent his first open-heart surgery. After six weeks in the hospital and major improvements, he was able to go home with his family. 


His heart health eventually declined and on December 2, 2018, River checked into Riley Hospital, not knowing when he would return home. The Harbin family celebrated the holiday season and River’s fourth birthday at the hospital. On February 20, 2019, River was relisted on the heart transplant list with a 1A status. He endured many trials including kidney failure, collapsed lungs, a stroke and brain bleed, cardiac arrest leading to the need for ECMO (life support) and 158 days on the Berlin Heart. At several pivotal moments, the medical team made critical decisions that ultimately gave River the chance to survive.

“He came in quite ill,” said Riley Heart Surgeon Mark Turrentine, M.D. “He was not thriving to survive to transplant, and he coded before we could get the ventricular assist device in. That probably is as bad a scenario as you can have, and then to suffer a big hemorrhagic stroke because of the low cardiac output, and to recover well enough to be transplanted, and to go home largely neurologically intact―that’s pretty remarkable.”


Dr. Turrentine says donors also played a big role in River’s victory by paying for the Berlin Heart equipment, which helped him survive. “Donors have made a huge impact on our ability to have the equipment to support children with failing hearts as a bridge to transplant,” said Dr. Turrentine.

River’s mother Brittany Harbin was amazed by his strength as he fought back from so many complications. “River continues to fight through the worst outcomes and shows what miracles truly are,” she said.

The family got the call that a heart was available on May 29. Dr. Turrentine performed the successful transplant surgery. Just 48 hours later, River was on his feet and walking. Two weeks later, he pulled his Riley wagon down the halls one last time to head home.

“This case exemplifies what it means to have a complex care team in an integrated cardiovascular center,” said Dr. Turrentine. “What we have here is one of just a handful of places in the country that are like the Riley Heart Center.”

As his family looks forward to life at home with River and his new heart, his parents are overflowing with gratitude. “Riley Hospital went above and beyond to not only care for River but whatever our family needed as well,” said Brittany. “The level of care and compassion, from doctors to security, has always been top-notch. Everyone has taken not only River but our whole family under their wing and loved, prayed, cried, and celebrated each step of this miraculous journey. Riley will always be a part of our family. The transplant process went absolutely flawlessly! River’s recovery has yet again exceeded doctors’ expectations! He truly is a gift from God!”

Learn more about how you can help support kids like River at

Riley Blogger

The Riley Blog is written and/or edited by members of the Riley Children's Foundation Communications Staff.

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