In the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Driscoll Children’s Hospital, tiny babies sleep tranquilly in incubators amid the occasional whispers of nurses and the faint beeps and hums of medical equipment. Infants from all over South Texas are brought here to be treated for disease, injury, complications due to premature birth and numerous other maladies.

With gloved hands, registered nurse Christianna “Chris” Donald gently adjusts a tube connected to a boy less than a month old from the Rio Grande Valley. He was born with congenital heart defects, and Donald has a special bond with him. As a newborn nearly 26 years ago, she was a patient in this same unit for the same reason.

“He’s going to have the exact same surgeries I had,” she said.

Donald was admitted to Driscoll’s NICU within 24 hours of being born, she said. One of her lungs kept collapsing and tubes called catheters had to be inserted into her chest. Her heart was missing two heart valves and a one ventricle – conditions that required surgery. (Ventricles are chambers on each side of the heart that receive blood and force it into the arteries.) Donald underwent three open heart surgeries by age 4; two were performed at Driscoll and one in Minnesota.

Although she recovered successfully, Donald’s condition meant she would need medical attention for the rest of her life. She was 12 years old the last time she was a patient at Driscoll, she said, and she remains under the care of a cardiologist.

Her surgeries at such a young age naturally worried Donald’s parents. Her mother became close to her doctors and nurses at Driscoll and remembers their names to this day. So it didn’t surprise Donald when her mother gave her a list of nurses to look for when she started working at Driscoll in August 2012.

“My family liked Driscoll’s nurses the best,” she said. “They were the most genuine.”

One of the people who treated Donald at Driscoll 25 years ago, cardiologist Billy Rios, MD, continues to be a positive influence in her life. Dr. Rios, who still practices at Driscoll, was her cardiologist until just a few months ago.

“First I wanted to be a pediatric cardiologist because I wanted to be just like him,” Donald said. “I send him Christmas cards every year.”

Many letters, photos and cards from current and former patients are displayed along a wall in Dr. Rios’ office. He pointed out several mementos from Donald that range from when she was a baby to when she graduated from college.

“I treat all my patients as if they were my own,” Dr. Rios said. “I’m very proud of Chris and all she’s accomplished. She never gave up. I’ve watched her grow up, through different stages, and she was always in good spirits, always asking questions and wanting to learn everything she could. Nothing was going to deter her from accomplishing her goals.”

Donald ultimately decided to pursue nursing, graduating from Texas Tech University in 2010. She began working in a NICU in Lubbock shortly afterward. But it was when she returned to Driscoll’s NICU as a nurse that she felt her life had come full circle.

“I understand the parents’ fears now,” she said. “I feel for them. I want to give their child the best care I can because nurses can make an impact, like they did in my life.”

Giving children and families hope is important to Donald too. She has volunteered at Camp Hearty, a

summer camp for children with congenital heart defects that Driscoll sponsors annually in Rockport,

and she often offers support to families in the NICU.

“Chris has an outstanding ability to connect with the babies and families in the NICU,” said Ana Olivera-Hamm, a chaplain at Driscoll Children’s Hospital and Donald’s friend. “Not only is she a NICU survivor and graduate, but a conqueror. Only God could have ordained her healing and her calling to become a healer herself.”

Donald is as healthy as she is happy. She hasn’t had any major complications from her heart condition, and a daily dose of blood pressure medication is one of the few reminders of her ordeal. She has even backpacked across Alaska with her parents, where they now live, she said. And, with a husband who is in pharmacy school, she is focused on the future and having children.

Nevertheless, she doesn’t take her good health for granted.

“All my life I’ve been given a finite number of years to live – maybe 12 years, maybe more,” Donald said. “Now I’m told I’ll probably have a normal lifespan. You either get devastated because your life may be short or you make the best of it. It’s in God’s hands.”

This is the third in a series of stories about extraordinary patients that Driscoll Children’s Hospital is sharing throughout 2013 as part of its 60th anniversary celebration.