Imagine living from birth until 24 years old, unable to play outside as a child and being carried from your farm in rural China to school until you were a teenager because any exertion on your heart would cause extreme difficulty breathing and your body to turn blue. This was the case for Huang Rongming, who was born with a congenital heart condition, called ectopia cordis, in which his heart bulges from his abdomen. After 24 years of living with the condition, Rongming has finally undergone corrective surgery and is able to start living a normal life.

Ectopia cordis only affects an estimated five to eight babies per million born. It’s characterized by any type of displacement of the heart outside of the chest cavity. Rongming, just like all other babies born with the condition, was expected to die within days of his birth. Although doctors said they could try to repair it with surgery, his parents, who were farmers, didn’t have enough money to pay for the procedure. They chose to take him home and raise him with great care, according to the Daily Mail.

Living with Ectopia Cordis

“We lived in anxiety when he was a little boy,” Rongming’s mother, Zhang Yuanfeng, told China Daily. He wasn’t allowed to play with friends outside, and his mother would carry him to school because, after only a few steps, he would become breathless and begin to turn blue from a lack of oxygen.

“During physical education lessons, I could only watch from a distance,” Rongming told China Daily. “Teachers were nice. Some kids showed sympathy, but there were also some who laughed at me.”

Rongming stopped going to school at 14 years old. At 19, he began working in a factory, where he packaged shoes. When he would lose breath, coworkers would help him; however, none of them knew about his condition, which he hid with layers of clothing through all seasons. “I didn’t know how they would react if they knew my heart was so different," he said.

Earlier this year, after encouragement from friends, Rongming visited Wuhan Union Hospital to find treatment. His condition was getting worse, and doctors, who were surprised that Rongming had even lived as long, said it would cost him 200,000 yuan ($32,000). Doctors told him to publicize his condition in hopes of receiving donations, and they poured in. One donor, alone, anonymously gave 150,000 yuan. And within days, Rongming received the rest of the money that he needed.

Huang Rongming
Huang Rongming's heart was repositioned to remain in his chest cavity. ExclusivePix

Surgery lasted about 10 hours. During that time, doctors moved his heart back into his chest and reinforced it with a shell-like structure to keep it safe. “His chest and belly are now almost as flat as any of ours. His heart is functioning well,” Sun Jiaming, the chief cosmetic surgeon of Wuhan Union Hospital, told China Daily.

Surviving Ectopia Cordis

Incidentally, this isn’t the first case of an ectopia cordis survival. Christopher Wall, born in 1975, was born with his heart outside of his body. Doctors performed over 15 surgeries before he turned 18 months old, but each surgery made it more difficult to align blood vessels in a way that wouldn’t affect blood flow. Finally, after six years at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and 21 surgeries later, doctors were able to transplant a piece of his hip bone onto his chest, creating the support that would allow him to breathe without a respirator and eventually leave the hospital.

It’s still unclear what causes the abnormality to occur. “A number of these conditions are caused from genetic and inherited causes but we don’t know exactly why some children may carry a particular gene and others don’t,” Dr. Victoria Vetter, a pediatric cardiologist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told ABC News.

For Wall, his surgery allowed him to persevere. He grew up playing sports, doing karate, and making friends like any other kid his age. Now, Rongming also has the opportunity to live without worrying about his heart. “It’s a dream come true. I’m going to lead a normal life like everyone else. I am now normal thanks to many kind souls,” he said.