Young girl battling congenital health issues captures hearts in Alpharetta

(l-r) Nell Estes, Piper Raines(foreground), Ruthie Raines, Joe Estes, Raven Raines & Mike Raines pose for a portrait at the Alpharetta Elementary School playground. Raven was born almost 5 years ago with a severe congenital heart defect. In her short life, she's survived nine surgeries Ð six of them open-heart surgeries Ð and has spent most of the first three years of life in a hospital. Throughout this ordeal, the family received an outpouring of help from the Alpharetta community. Though still with special needs, Raven is now healthy and will celebrate her 5th birthday Dec. 10. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
(l-r) Nell Estes, Piper Raines(foreground), Ruthie Raines, Joe Estes, Raven Raines & Mike Raines pose for a portrait at the Alpharetta Elementary School playground. Raven was born almost 5 years ago with a severe congenital heart defect. In her short life, she's survived nine surgeries Ð six of them open-heart surgeries Ð and has spent most of the first three years of life in a hospital. Throughout this ordeal, the family received an outpouring of help from the Alpharetta community. Though still with special needs, Raven is now healthy and will celebrate her 5th birthday Dec. 10. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

A few years ago, a baby girl with a dimpled smile and a fragile heart captivated Alpharetta.

Now, against all odds, she is about to celebrate her 5th birthday. And the community that rallied around “Baby Raven” and her parents, Mike and Ruthie Raines, can celebrate, too.

No one gave Raven Raines much chance to survive this long when she was born with severe congenital heart disease on Dec. 10, 2015. She had four major surgeries before her first birthday. In her short life, she’s survived nine surgeries – six that were open-heart – plus more than 20 other surgical procedures, and eight to 10 severe infections.

However, Raven has made remarkable progress, said her doctor, Glen Iannucci, MD, pediatric cardiologist, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Heart Center, Sibley Heart Center Cardiology. He credits Raven’s “indominable spirit” and the dedication of her family and therapists.

Indeed, Raven surpasses every benchmark set for her, said her physical therapist Denise Young. “The things she’s been through, and to progress like she has, is amazing,” Young said.

She can ride a tricycle, jump and run, laugh and talk – none of which doctors gave her much hope of ever being able to do.

“She’s obviously got some fight in her,” remarked mom Ruthie.

Raven Raines excitedly approaches a slide with her father Mike waiting as she plays on the Alpharetta Elementary School playground with her family. Raven was born almost 5 years ago with a severe congenital heart defect. In her short life, she's survived nine surgeries Ð six of them open-heart surgeries Ð and has spent much of her first three years of life in a hospital. Throughout this ordeal, the family received an outpouring of help from the Alpharetta community. Though still with special needs, Raven is now healthy and will celebrate her 5th birthday Dec. 10. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
Raven Raines excitedly approaches a slide with her father Mike waiting as she plays on the Alpharetta Elementary School playground with her family. Raven was born almost 5 years ago with a severe congenital heart defect. In her short life, she's survived nine surgeries Ð six of them open-heart surgeries Ð and has spent much of her first three years of life in a hospital. Throughout this ordeal, the family received an outpouring of help from the Alpharetta community. Though still with special needs, Raven is now healthy and will celebrate her 5th birthday Dec. 10. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

On a recent fall day, Raven ran ahead of her big sister Piper, age 6, to play on a new special needs playground in Alpharetta.

“Park, park, park,” Raven chanted in a hoarse whisper, with her trade-mark dimpled smile.

Raven had her first open-heart surgery at 6 days old at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Egleston Hospital. From there, she had a lot of other health complications, “one thing after another,” Ruthie Raines said. “So many times, they told us she wouldn’t make it.”

There were life-threatening infections, digestive issues, spinal concerns, and much more. Twice the family flew to Boston so that Raven could have open-heart surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital.

“It was very emotional and hard for Mike and me, but seeing how strong she was kept us strong,” Raines said. “I just knew that God had a bigger plan. She was here for a reason.”

Alpharetta residents rallied around this family, like small-town locals who look after their own.

Ruthie grew up in Alpharetta, and her parents, Joe and Nell Estes, are well-known as educators and business owners.

Help poured in from friends, but also strangers who had heard about the family’s plight and wanted to contribute in some way. They brought meals, started fund-raisers, paid off the family’s debts, and gave gas cards to help ease the expense of endless trips back and forth to the hospital.

“These people went completely out of their way to go above and beyond for our family when it was hard – emotionally, financially, everything. I feel so honored to live in Alpharetta, knowing that they helped us so much,” Ruthie Raines said.

To help with staggering medical bills and care needs, the Raines moved in with the Estes. The Alpharetta Public Safety Foundation paid to renovate the kitchen and prepare a nursery for Raven. Firefighters and other public safety officers spent a day in volunteer service doing the home repairs and yard work.

When Raven needed open-heart surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital as a 1-year-old, the Foundation paid the housing, transportation and food for the couple’s eight-week stay, said former Alpharetta Police Chief and Foundation director Gary George.

In addition, Stonecreek Church, in partnership with the Foundation, gave $10,000 to help with expenses. Senior pastor Steven Gibbs said members “felt honored” to help the family during a critical time. A church member even secured a private jet for the trip, at no charge.

“We lean into tragedies; we want to provide hope to people,” Gibbs said.

Mike Raines watches as he daughter Raven plays at the Alpharetta Elementary School playground with her family. Raven was born almost 5 years ago with a severe congenital heart defect. In her short life, she's survived nine surgeries Ð six of them open-heart surgeries Ð and has spent much of her first three years of life in a hospital. Throughout this ordeal, the family received an outpouring of help from the Alpharetta community. Though still with special needs, Raven is now healthy and will celebrate her 5th birthday Dec. 10. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
Mike Raines watches as he daughter Raven plays at the Alpharetta Elementary School playground with her family. Raven was born almost 5 years ago with a severe congenital heart defect. In her short life, she's survived nine surgeries Ð six of them open-heart surgeries Ð and has spent much of her first three years of life in a hospital. Throughout this ordeal, the family received an outpouring of help from the Alpharetta community. Though still with special needs, Raven is now healthy and will celebrate her 5th birthday Dec. 10. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Nell Estes said the family’s medical journey had been heart-wrenching, with Mike actively helping Ruthie with Raven’s care, showing strength and tenderness.

“It has taken my breath away to recount all the care and emergency situations Raven and her parents have endured,” she said.

Raven has not had a hospital stay since April of 2019 but still needs a lot of home care. She gets weekly physical, occupational, and speech therapies and requires a feeding tube.

For the longest time, Raven couldn’t speak. Her cries were like whispers. Now the words can’t tumble out fast enough, says her mom. She tells her parents that she loves the hospital because it helped her heart.

“Raven is delightful,” said her grandmother Estes. “She is smart, fun, and funny.”

Neighbors still stop Mike and Ruthie to ask them about their little girl. “People care. It’s very heartwarming,” Ruthie Raines said. “It makes you want to stay in Alpharetta forever.”

WHAT INSPIRES ABOUT RAVEN RAINES?

“She has shown me how to be strong and brave, and she means hope and love to me.”

Haley Hayes, 15, Raven’s cousin who came up with a decal fund-raiser to help with medical expenses.

“It makes you very proud" to see Raven now. "Praise God. This is an example of what a Foundation can do.”

Gary George, former Alpharetta police chief and director of the Alpharetta Public Safety Foundation

“Through Raven’s miraculous story, all of us fell in love with Raven herself. She is a picture of strength and joy. It has been a privilege for our students and families to watch her go from a little face in dramatic pictures from the hospital to a smiling and giggling little girl visiting our lobby. The faithfulness of Raven’s story has inspired all of us.”

Elizabeth LeBlanc, principal, Legacy Community Academy, Alpharetta

“When I think about Raven, this is the first thing that comes to mind. Her smile. ...I suspect she comes by her indominable spirit honestly, as her mother has been her champion through all of this.”

Dr. Glen Iannucci, pediatric cardiologist, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Heart Center, Sibley Heart Center Cardiology

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