Wee Harri Brown doesn't remember the life-saving open-heart surgery he had just 29 hours after he was born, but he knows he's got the "battle scar" to prove it.

"We tell him he's got a Superman heart and it just needed a little bit of super-fixing," the now 5-year-old's dad Rod Brown says of the little boy who runs 5km races and came fourth in his age group at his first school cross country.

It could've all been so different.

Soon after birth, Harri was diagnosed with critical aortic stenosis, with severe left ventricle dysfunction — his ventricle was ejecting between 7 and 12 per cent of its volume each heart beat. A healthy baby's heart ejects 55 per cent, Brown said.

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Harri needed an operation as soon as possible, but was in Christchurch — 1000km away from the Starship paediatric heart team.

Harri Brown, still in Starship Hospital's paediatric intensive care unit aged 7 days in 2014. Photo / Supplied
Harri Brown, still in Starship Hospital's paediatric intensive care unit aged 7 days in 2014. Photo / Supplied

So the Starship National Air Ambulance whisked him to Auckland, where medical staff saved his life.

His family are sharing the story of Harri's dramatic start to life to support a nationwide fundraising campaign launching tomorrow by Starship Five Star Partner New World.

It costs $1.5 million a year to run the air ambulance — a round trip from Christchurch to Starship alone cost approximately $32,000. Last year the service, which acts as a "flying intensive care unit", made 183 retrieval missions.

Like his own before Harri's arrival, there would be families who thought they would never need the air ambulance, Brown said.

"Until they do."

Harri Brown, 5, pictured on his birthday with his parents, Rod and Melanie Brown, and brother Alexander, 2. Picture / supplied
Harri Brown, 5, pictured on his birthday with his parents, Rod and Melanie Brown, and brother Alexander, 2. Picture / supplied

Harri's arrival was an "emotional rollercoaster" start to parenthood for him and Harri's mum, Melanie, who have since welcomed a second child, 2-year-old Alexander, Brown said.

"I burst a blood vessel in my eye from crying .. it was all kind of crazy, because you've just had a baby and he's not with you."

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The first indication something was wrong came less than two hours after Harri's birth, when a paediatrician told Brown his son had a critical heart condition, news that prompted Brown to automatically walk backwards away from the doctor.

Rod and Melanie Brown, pictured with their son, Harri, aged 7 days in 2014. This was the first time Melanie got to hold her son, who needed open-heart surgery aged 29 hours. Photo / Supplied
Rod and Melanie Brown, pictured with their son, Harri, aged 7 days in 2014. This was the first time Melanie got to hold her son, who needed open-heart surgery aged 29 hours. Photo / Supplied

"You have this life-changing conversation and it's all within the space of two minutes."
Hospital staff then told the couple to give their son a name and take photos before he was put in the air ambulance, without them because of limited space.

"When they said, 'make sure you take some photos and give him a name before he goes', that's when you realise how serious this is. Because he was perfect on the outside, but was really sick on the inside. We hadn't even got to hold him at that stage."

Harri, whose heart was working so hard his parents were told it could stop at any time, was given a 50/50 chance of surviving the operation.

But the wee fighter made it.

After his surgery Harri's chest was left open for four days, because of swelling and also to allow surgeons to perform a second surgery if needed.

At seven days, Melanie Brown held her son for the first time. Two days later, Brown followed.

Seventeen days after his birth, Harri and his mum were on a commercial flight back to Christchurch, although the newborn's future at that stage remained uncertain.

Even after the operation, doctors couldn't tell the couple what Harri's long-term prognosis was, and whether he would regain full function.

Starting life with open-heart surgery aged 29 hours hasn't held Harri Brown, 5, back - he finished first in the under 8 2000m Port Hills Athletics Club race. Photo / Supplied
Starting life with open-heart surgery aged 29 hours hasn't held Harri Brown, 5, back - he finished first in the under 8 2000m Port Hills Athletics Club race. Photo / Supplied

He's exceeded all expectations — by age 1 his heart function had almost returned to normal, Brown said.

The Oaklands School pupil wasn't on any medication and only needed to travel to Starship once a year for a check-up.

"At some point they'll have to replace his aortic valve. We've been told 'three operations to get him to adulthood', but he's doing really well at the moment."

Harri had done his part, but none of it would've been possible without that angel flight on a late autumn day back in 2014.

"Without the air ambulance service and Starship we wouldn't have our son. What would life be like without Harri? It would be empty."

* The New World + Starship campaign runs from tomorrow until September 27. Donations can be made at starship.org.nz/foundation or by buying one of three collectable airplanes at New World, with 100 per cent of proceeds going to the air ambulance.