Medically fragile, mentally strong: Preschooler thrives, despite cardiac and neurological problems

Tracy Cornell with pediatric pulmonary nurse practitioner Mary Foster. (PHOTO BY ROBERT MESCAVAGE)

Tracy Cornell with pediatric pulmonary nurse practitioner Mary Foster. (PHOTO BY ROBERT MESCAVAGE)


In 2013, friends of Kristy and John Cornell told the couple about a woman who gave birth to a baby girl in the Buffalo area. The baby was to be adopted, and she had health problems.

The Cornells were foster parents, living near Binghamton. Kristy Cornell was a nurse.

The Cornells met baby Tracy several days after her first heart surgery to repair the aortic arch of her heart.


Tracy likes to play with her family’s 80-pound dog and has many stuffed dogs. (PHOTO BY ROBERT MESCAVAGE)

“I went up to visit the baby at the hospital, and I just fell in love with her,” recalls Kristy Cornell. Her husband, John, is a New York state trooper.

The Cornells met baby Tracy several days after her first heart surgery  to repair the aortic arch of her heart.

Tracy’s birth mother liked the couple and wanted them to adopt her. After a brief stay with a foster family in Buffalo – who are now Tracy’s godparents – Tracy came home to her “forever” family, which includes 21-year-old Michael, 11-year-old Molly and 5-year-old Zorion.

Tracy had a second cardiac surgery when she was 1. She’s 4 now. Her pediatric cardiac surgeon, Upstate’s George Alfieris, MD, likely will need to operate a third time, to repair a heart valve and a narrowing of the aorta, the main artery of the body.

Daniel Kveselis, MD

Daniel Kveselis, MD, is Tracy’s pediatric cardiologist at Upstate. Pediatric pulmonary nurse practitioner Mary Foster helps the preschooler with her asthma and environmental allergies.

“I first started caring for her when she was 6 months old,” Foster says. “She used to be so scared when she came to her appointments.” Now Tracy is less anxious.

By looking at her, “You would never know that she’s medically fragile. You would never know, other than the scar,” her mother says.

She has a scar on her chest from the surgeries. Tracy is also small for her age.

In addition to the heart problems, and the pulmonary issues, she has a genetic disorder that causes the growth of tumors in her nervous system. It’s called neurofibromatosis, type 1.

George Alfieris, MD

George Alfieris, MD

The Cornells live with many unknowns. The tumors that grow could be cancerous, cause vision problems or be disfiguring. Or, her disease could be mild. There’s no way to predict.

So, they focus on regular life — which for Tracy means full-day pre-kindergarten, princess dresses, and an obsession with Henry, the family’s 80-pound English mastiff-Lab mix.

Kristy Cornell says Tracy has a million stuffed dogs and likes to pretend that she is a dog. She also likes playing with Zorion, the 5-year-old boy of whom they have custody. The minute she wakes up in the morning, she asks, “Where’s Zorion?”

“She’s a redheaded, fiery little girl,” Kristy Cornell says. “She’s very strong.

“I think that’s what’s gotten her through so far.

“She’s just a really spunky kid. We just absolutely adore her.”

Upstate Health magazine winter 2018 issueThis article appears in the winter 2018 issue of Upstate Health magazine.

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