PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - Sixteen babies who've endured at least two complex open-heart surgeries got the chance to celebrate the milestone with their families on Wednesday.
All of the CHAMPION "heart warrior" graduates from Phoenix Children's Heart Center are younger than 2.
CHAMPION stands for Cardiac High Acuity Monitoring Program for Infants and Newborns.
"It's really intense," said Ron Bernhard. His 7-month-old son Benjamin was born with half a heart and had to have his first open-heart surgery at 2 days old.
"Doctors have a special line. We have to text them every single day heart rate, weight and oxygen levels," explained Bernhard.
One by one, each family walked across the stage at the hospital's cafeteria courtyard. The graduation ceremony was adorned with red heart-shaped balloons and packed with nurses and doctors. It's a stark contrast from the hospital rooms families have become familiar with.
Bernhard and his fiancée Christina Soza moved from Yuma to Phoenix to make sure their son Benjamin got the right care.
"He's come really far and it's mind-blowing to see him smile every day," said Bernhard. "We went through four or five months of tubes, wires, machines beeping and people running in and out of rooms now just to be home and experience all the normal baby things."
The Hootman Family wore matching shirts to celebrate their 15-month-old Corbin who wore a Superman shirt and suspenders.
"Cause he's our little superhero. We're very proud of him. He's come a long way," said his mom Kristina Hootman.
"It's wonderful," she added. "I didn't know if we'd ever get here. It's wonderful to be here and him doing so well."
Dr. John Breinholt is PCH's division chief of pediatric cardiologists.
"Seeing that love and that happiness in the parents is thrilling," said Breinholt. "It validates all the time investment and struggle in what we do. It's fantastic."
As for perspective, "imagine if your heart is the size of your fist and you take one of these tiny babies and put their hand into their fist. That's the size of their heart," Breinholt said.
"It's obviously a big trauma on the body to undergo that surgery after the first one," he explained. "It's a lot for that little body to go through."
Phoenix Children's Heart Center is the fifth-largest program of its kind in the U.S.