Beyond the Heart – Nauman’s Story

Adult patient and medical student, Nauman Shahid, shares what he learned about the way different body systems interact with one another through Medical School and personal experience. Here, he shares the complications that developed with his lungs as a result of his Congenital Heart Disease.

 

When we think “Congenital Heart Defect” we often think about the “heart” and only the heart, but as someone who attends an Osteopathic Medical School, Ive come to realize that this is only the tip of the iceberg in the realm of CHDs. One of the tenants of the Osteopathic medicine philosophy happens to be in how the body is a unit as described by the founding father Dr. Andrew Still. Within this unit lie different organ systems that work in sync to create a balance of homeostasis. Its when we have a disturbance in this “homeostasis” is when we have a diseased state that may often require medical intervention in addition to the body’s own ability to self regulate. In this short piece, I will attempt to introduce one piece of this unit at the organ level to facilitate the understanding in how a Congenital Heart Defect is much more than just the “heart” with a focus on respiratory/pulmonary ailments.

Nauman with Representative Gus Bilirakis at the Legislative Conference in Washington D.C.

Having Tetralogy of Fallot diagnosed at a very young age, my parents were often told of the potential respiratory issues that may arise during the course of my life. As such, many Tetralogy of Fallot patients often require a pulmonary valve replacement by virtue of the initial repair surgery in which the pulmonary valve is disrupted. Coupled this with having a stenotic left pulmonary artery, this substantially increased my right sided heart pressures and decreased the blood flow to the lungs in general due to having pulmonary artery hypertension. Overtime this can cause issues in the long run as it did for me. As a result, during times of strenuous exercise or any activity in which it increased the heart rate, I would find a great amount of shortness of breathe coupled with lower extremity edema. This can be thought to have similar implications as an infant having a crying “TET” spell. This often occurred as a result of the lungs not receiving adequate amounts of blood. This resulted in a back up of blood in reverse all the way down to the lower extremities. A way to think about this is, imagine having a backup of water in your sink due to having a faulty water sink disposer. The water will continually collect unless the core of the issue is resolved. In which case, for me, was a faulty pulmonary valve coupled with a stenotic left pulmonary artery which caused respiratory issues.

You might be asking, “how does all of this relate to a pulmonary issue”? To answer this, we need to first define pulmonary artery hypertension, in which it is a condition where the blood pressures are increased within the arteries of the lungs. Pulmonary Hypertension is a broad spectrum term which has 5 distinct groups of etiologies as defined by the World Health Organization. In my case, having a stenosis of the left pulmonary artery increased the pressure and caused a back up of blood which in turn causes the heart to work harder. It should be noted that normal pressures for the pulmonary artery are usually below 20 mmHg. However if this pressure rises to above 25 mmHg during rest, it is by definition pulmonary artery hypertension. It is very sensitive to minute changes in pressure and hence why the right side of the heart that leads into the lungs is called the “low pressure system”.

For me as the patient, it caused a number of different issues. I often had increased exercise fatigue, shortness of breath when playing sports, and palpitations. Being in medical school, it did not help me where I would sit for long durations of time. During this time, I got a bit ill and developed pneumonia. I had repeated trips to the emergency room near my medical school. As a result, many of the ER doctors I saw were obviously not trained enough in the realm of dealing with congenital heart defects and were also confused when administering certain acute therapies including nebulizers and other respiratory treatments with a probable focus on it being a pneumonia infection. Additionally asthma was also likely present as well with the larger issue ofcourse was dealing with these EKG changes that got many doctors confused. When I initially started to get palpitations, and shortness of breath, I used to think the acute altitude changes were a contributing factor since my medical school is a bit higher in elevation in rural West Virginia. While that may also have contributed to my symptoms, it ofcourse was not the entire story. During this time, I remember my mother telling me all the time, “Nauman, your heart is telling you something, you should listen to it”. As they say, mothers are never wrong, and rightly so. The exercise fatigue, shortness of breath ended up being much more than just asthma or pneumonia alone. Finally, I got to see a Cardiologist after narrowing down that it was likely my heart that was acting up which was now affecting my lungs as well. It was only with my Cardiologist in New Jersey did I learn about the gravity of the situation and the likely intervention required.

The million-dollar question? How do you fix this? Well thankfully with the advancement of congenital heart medical care, patients with similar presentations have a multitude of options including surgical and medicinal therapeutic interventions. Initially I went in for a catherization at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to replace my pulmonary valve via a transcatheter procedure. However, the diameter of the Right Ventricular Outflow Tract (RVOT) was simply too large as a result of a slightly dilated heart making the transcatheter procedure a non-viable option. This rendered open heart surgical intervention as the only choice which came as a blessing in disguise. Under the careful direction and precision of my surgeon at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, they not only replaced my pulmonary valve, but repaired my left pulmonary artery,
reconstructed my RVOT, and repaired a hole in the septal leaflet of my tricuspid valve which came about as a result of my severe pulmonary valve regurgitation.

The take home message? Depending on the complexities of your congenital heart defect, it is imperative to understand that no two CHD’s will be identical with a varying degree of severity. With this, it is important to note that as in my case, it is not just about the heart in a localized fashion. This was just one example in how something as simple as 3 pieces of tissue coming together to make a valve that open and close due to pressure differentials can cause such a dramatic effect. This being, lower extremity edema, increased right heart sided/pulmonary pressures, shortness of breath and ultimately damaging the heart to a point of no return effecting the systolic (pumping function) of the heart. Furthermore, the artery connecting the right ventricle and the pulmonary trunk may get stenotic to where one may have higher pulmonary pressures and thus have pulmonary hypertension. For this reason, it is imperative to understand the human body as a unit of different organ systems working in concert to achieve the process we so often taking for granted known as life. By addressing the core etiology that disrupts our homeostasis you can address each component collectively and individually which in my case was the dysfunction between the circulatory (heart) and respiratory systems (lungs).

I never really knew how much these issues were effecting me until I got treatment. Although my recovery from open heart surgery was anything but normal due to having pleuritis and other issues, I have come out well. In fact aside from my ability to return back to my fitness regimen, I noticed a great increase in my intellectual capacity to where I have been ranked in the top tier of my medical school class as I am no longer fatigued or tired during the rigors of medical school. While I know, many of my fellow heart warriors are not looking forward to a possible surgical intervention, I can safely say everything indeed happens for a reason. If it wasn’t for my pneumonia, they may not have ever picked up on my EKG changes. As my mother said it best, “Listen to your heart, its telling you something”, and finally my heart is content with this outcome because while I may not be where I want to be, I am simply glad I am not where I used to be.

Nauman Shahid is a 31 year old Tetralogy of Fallot Patient who is well known in the congenital heart community as a regular contributor on various social media platforms. He is involved in various congenital heart awareness initiatives including being a Hearts Unite the Globe (HUG Network) Volunteer as a Guest Host for their CHD radio show (Heart to Heart with Anna), Chief Operations Officer/Board Member for the Tetralogy of Fallot Foundation, recipient of the PCHA Scholarship to attend the 2018 Congenital Heart Legislative Conference in Washington DC where he met lawmakers to advocate for H.R. 1222 (Congenital Heart Futures Reauthorization Act of 2017), and selected for the 2018 PCHA Calendar for the month of November. However one of his strongest contributions comes as a result of him being a dedicated medical student where he lead an awareness campaign on campus during Congenital Heart Awareness week on Feb 9, 2018 where he along with a few dedicated classmates distributed purple ribbons along with relevant literature in an effort to inform the next generation of breeding physicians about CHDs. When Nauman is not studying, he is often found to either be boxing in the gym, BBQ/cooking some of his favorite foods, touching base with fellow heart warriors and their families to lift their spirits or resting up listening to his favorite soft rock tracks. Nauman will be attending a 2 week clinical internship at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital’s Heart Institute to observe the various complexities of cardiac ailments in the clinic and surgery. He has earned a Bachelors of Science in Biology and a Masters of Public Health (Honors) with a focus on Health Policy. He attributes much of his success to his family and aspires to help heart warriors with congenital heart defects as a future physician.

Recap – New Diagnosis

Becoming part of the CHD community can be a shocking and overwhelming experience. Our series on New Diagnosis offers new family a view into the fist steps of others who have come before them, in hopes they may ease the the journey if only just a bit.

 

New Diagnosis – Prenatal Conquering CHD Kits

 

New Diagnosis – One Day At A Time, A Heart Mom’s Story

New Diagnosis – Mary Beth’s Story, Diagnosed in Adulthood

New Diagnosis – Baby Shower

New Diagnosis – Jaclyn’s Story

New Diagnosis – Fetal Echo

New Diagnosis – Pulse Oximetry

New Diagnosis – Brooke’s Story

Pre-Existing Condition by Dr. Stephen Caldwell

After the diagnosis of his son, Dr. Stephen Caldwell, used music to chart his family’s experience with CHD. Watch below, and find the lyrics to “Pre-Existing Condition” and Dr. Caldwell’s thoughts on his work. 

 

University of Arkansas Schola Cantorum

Dr. Stephen Caldwell, Director

Pre-Existing Condition*                                                Stephen Caldwell (2018)

                      1. Congratulations!

                      2. Small Hands

                      3. Angel One

                      4. CVICU

                      5. Scars

                      6. The Deepest Secret

 

Hannah Mindeman, Piano

Nikola Radan, flute

Kyleigh Pell, marimba

Chris Scherer, vibraphone/glockenspiel

Collette Soriano, drum

 

 

*World Premiere Performance – https://youtu.be/uQjxhjrcnpc

Funded in part by Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences 2017 Summer Faculty Research Grant

 

 

Notes from the Composer:

In 2016, my wife and I were expecting our first child. The joy and anticipation of a routine ultrasound turned into nightmare, an experience that many CHD families share. The technician became very quiet. He zoomed in very carefully, taking more pictures than normal of our child’s heart. He sat very still. “Mr. and Mrs. Caldwell, I am going to get the Doctor…”

Like 40,000 other babies each year, our son was born with a Congenital Heart Defect. His diagnosis left us speechless: Tetralogy of Fallot with conoseptal hypoplasia, right-sided aortic arch, left-ventricular systolic dysfuction, and left branch pulmonary stenosis. The next several months unfolded like a dream that included multiple medivac helicopter rides, more than 100 days spent in the CVICU, two open heart surgeries (a palliative procedure to install a Central Shunt at 6 weeks, and complete repair at 9 months), millions in medical bills, 20,000 miles driven between where we lived in Fayetteville, AR, and Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock, and stress on an indescribable scale.

Pre-Existing Condition chronicles that journey, from the onslaught of medical terms thrown at parents when they receive the diagnosis, through the birth of a medically fragile child not knowing if they will live, through helicopter rides, 911 calls, ambulances and ERs, the stress of extended CVICU stays with their uncomfortable chairs and constantly beeping monitors, and the cloud of emotion that runs around these events.

At the center of the chaos, however, is a child. A child that needs love, attention, and support. A child that shows their parents what courage is. Children born with CHDs are remarkably fierce in their determination to live, and are immensely proud of the scars they bear. Though labeled for life by medical and insurance companies as having a “Pre-Existing Condition” these children fight against the tide of that label, to prove to everyone that every life has equal merit.

 

 

Pre-Existing Condition

I. Congratulations!

Mister and Missus, I’m going to get the Doctor.

Anomaly…results of the ultrasound…

Results of the echocardiogram…your child has

Anomaly of the heart…Tetralogy of Fallot…

Ventricular septal defect….congenital

No blood flow to the lungs…and the aorta isn’t in the right position

May not survive.

 

Right ventricular outflow tract…right-sided aortic arch

Pulmonary artery is too small…won’t be able to breathe

Here’s a drawing of a healthy heart – this is what your baby looks like…

Won’t be able to breath…pulse-ox is low…

May not survive.

 

Surgery.

 

Perfusion, myocarditis, cyanosis, Tet Spell

Diminished systolic function.

Truncus arteriosis, transannular patch, NPO

Transposition of the arteries, ECMO

Capilary refill, pacing wires

Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome

Conoseptal Hypoplasia

Captopril…milrinone…stenosis…

Coarctation of the aorta…probably dysphagia

Patent ductus arteriosus…expect emisis…tachycardia

And watch for aspiration…bradycardia…

Diminished Systolic function.

May not survive.

It’s not the end of the world.

There’s a risk of mortality.

It’s not your fault.

We need your consent.

Do you have insurance?

It’s a boy!

The ICU is $8,000 per day.

May not survive.

Congratulations!

 

II. Small Hands (from Somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond, by ee cummings)

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals

the power of your intense fragility: whose texture

compels me with the colour of its countries,

rendering death and forever with each breathing

 

(i do not know what it is about you that closes

and opens; only something in me understands

the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)

nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

 

 

III. Angel One

The ascent seems slow,

Like a rollercoaster clicking away at your fears,

But the fall never comes.

The light is heavy, full of guilt,

The engine’s pulsing onslaught reminding you of your every breath,

Giving the vibrations in the air memory.

The restraints dig and cut.

Frantic haste masked by stillness.

The grass is so green! The sky so blue!

As the Angel slices through the cloudless view,

Beating its heart in a race against another,

Extinguishing like the moonlight at dawn.

 

IV. CVICU (after Li Po)

Amongst the chaos, I am along with him.

Staring at a cup, half-full of water,

Brought by a nurse, who said I looked thirsty.

I ask the moon to drink with me.

Then I sigh, for the moon cannot drink.

Surrounded by people, but alone, I sing to him:

“Hush now, little baby boy.

Go to sleep, and dream your little dreams.”

I’m glad to make the moon my friend.

But when it becomes too much, we part.

For now, I need steady emotion.

I hope someday we all will meet again,

Deep in the Milky Way.

 

V. Scars

What will they think of you and me, when they see our scars of such degree?

What will they wonder, with quiet nod, what did they do to be punished by God?

Did they not pray? Did they not sacrifice?

“My kids are fine because we worship Christ.”

They give you a smile, but once out of sight, they say to themselves,

“That kid isn’t right.”

 

What will they think of you and me, when they see our scars of such degree?

Will they think you a warrior with courage so brave?

Will they think you a hero, of the lives that you’ve saved?

Will they ask of your battles, of your stories and lore?

Of combat and fighting and bullets and war?

Should we tell them this anyway and hope they’ll see,

That we don’t need their sympathy?

 

What will they think of you and me, when they see our scars of such degree?

Scars are forever, there to see, what has happened to you has happened to me.

Wounds of the flesh one can hide. Wounds of the soul are kept all inside.

Our scars are the same, yours and mine.

Your scars of the body, my scars of the mind.

 

VI. The Deepest Secret (i carry your heart, by ee cummings)

i carry your heart with me (i carry it in

my heart) i am never without it(anywhere

i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done

by only me is your doing, my darling)

i fear

no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet) i want

no world (for beautiful you are my world ,my true)

and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant

and whatever a sun will always sing is you

 

here is the deepest secret nobody knows

(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud

and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows

higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)

and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

 

i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)

 

Beyond the Heart – Marissa’s Story

There is still much unknown about adult Congenital Heart Disease Patients and the long term effects of their treatment in childhood. This week, Marissa, a single ventricle patient about to complete her nursing degree, shares her story of an unexpected complication, which almost cost her future in nursing. 

I call myself a “heart patient”, but why? Sure, I was born with six complex congenital heart defects, but my heart disease effects more than just one body system. As a 21-year- old Single Ventricle Fontan, I’ve always had my routine EKGs, echocardiograms, stress tests, halter monitors- you name it. Because I am a fontan, I’ve been made aware of the high likelihood of developing liver cirrhosis, so I have liver ultrasounds each summer. There can be issues with pregnancy, exercise tolerance, mental health disorders, and an overall a deterioration of the Fontan circulation. I’ve always been very realistic and knowledgeable with my own health condition, which is why I was so surprised when I heard my doctor say the words “you have T-cell Lymphopenia related to your Fontan circulation”.

In November of 2016, I underwent a diagnostic endoscopy that yielded abnormal findings. A week later, I found out I had an infection lining my esophagus. I presented with no symptoms and had been completely unaware of the infection. The treatment was simple, a two-week course of oral antibiotics, but my doctor felt I needed to undergo further immunology testing, considering this was an opportunistic infection. After three separate lab studies showing low immune cell counts, I was referred to an Immunologist in Philadelphia. Since then, I’ve seen three separate immunology specialists.

Marissa and her Mom wearing surgical masks while flying, to protect themselves.

T-Cell Lymphopenia is a secondary immunodeficiency that results in decreased levels of T cells (infection fighting cells) within the blood. The high pressures within my circulation do not allow my lymphatic system to release the proper amount of T-cells needed within a healthy individual. For me, my case is mild and was caught early, however; the newfound diagnosis almost ended my career as a nurse before it even began.

When I finally received my official diagnosis, I was in my third year of nursing school. I was attending clinical rotations twice a week, and I was already working in a hospital setting. Many specialists were unfamiliar with my diagnosis in relation to my childhood heart surgeries. Before I began my senior year of school, I visited a new doctor who advised I avoid patients with any form of a transmittable illness. I was advised to wear a mask in crowded spaces, to avoid friends or family members who were ill, and I was given immunizations intended for those with a weak immune system. Having these new restrictions was difficult, and it was a daily reminder that I will always fight this chronic illness; I’ll never be considered
“healthy”.

 

Marissa dressed as a nurse for Halloween when she was 9 years old.

When starting my last year of nursing school, I was told I couldn’t complete the program with the accommodations my doctor required. I was devastated to find that I may not be able to graduate with my nursing degree, and I may not be able to fulfill my passion to work as a nurse. I had spent three years studying and preparing to succeed in my future career, and it all came to a halt on a warm August day. I’ve always tried to treat myself as normal as possible; I’ve never wanted my congenital heart defects to define me as an individual. I knew this career would be tough, especially for someone with a single ventricle. Nursing school is the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, but hearing that I wouldn’t be able to graduate because of my heart was the worst part. No matter how hard I studied, how well I performed in clinical, and how well I prepared for my future, that didn’t matter anymore. With this crushing reality, I requested a third opinion from a pediatric specialist, hoping this physician would have more experience considering Congenital Heart Defects are from birth.

 

Marissa in her scrubs now, at the age of 20 years old.

Thankfully, after visiting a third immunologist, I now have no restrictions related to my T-Cell Lymphopenia. I will require follow-up care to monitor my T-cell and vaccination levels, however, I have NO restrictions in the clinical setting. I’m allowed to finish my degree to fulfill my dreams and work as a nurse. I’m incredibly grateful to have been able to see a specialist who was familiar with my diagnosis. Apparently, T-Cell Lymphopenia is present in a small percentage of Fontans by the time they reach their early 20’s.

 

CHD does go beyond the heart, and affects the body in various ways. It’s important that we as patients receive lifelong care, but this can be challenging when complications arise outside of the heart. Although it took over a year, I’m thankful to have received the proper diagnosis and plan of care. I want to inspire others to be an advocate for themselves and to not give up on their dreams. Life can get difficult sometimes, but through determination we can reach our goals,even when taking an unconventional path.

 

 

 

 

 

Marissa Mendoza lives in New Jersey and was born with six complex congenital heart defects. She was diagnosed with a Ventricular Septal Defect, Congenitally Corrected Transposition of the Great Arteries with Ventricular Inversion, Pulmonary Atresia, Bilateral Superior Vena Cavas, and Dextracardia. She underwent three open heart surgeries before the age of two, now classifying her as a Single Ventricle Fontan. She is a senior year nursing student graduating in May, 2018 and has a passion for working in pediatric cardiology. Marissa has a lifelong goal to increase awareness of Congenital Heart Defects and serve as an advocate for not only herself, but for the millions of others facing this chronic condition.

 

Beyond the Heart – Rebeka’s Story

CHD can affect so much more than the heart, yet physicians unfamiliar with Congenital Heart Disease may have trouble seeing the big picture. In this week’s post Rebeka Acosta, PCHA Steering Committee member and Mom to two heart warriors, shares the struggle of coordinating care outside of cardiology.

In the last few decades, science and research surrounding congenital heart disease has uncovered many connections to other body systems. As the parent of two heart warriors with additional diagnoses and unique family histories, it is imperative for me to keep up with research, be able to educate non-cardiac
practitioners, and advocate for my kids’ entire bodies. If that sounds like a full-time job, you are correct!

 

 

My youngest son has single ventricle anatomy and experiences challenges in the neurodevelopmental and neuropsychology spheres. Difficulties with word recall, attention and focus, and auditory processing have left many clinicians with puzzled looks on their faces. Some prescribed therapies with scientifically unproven results, while refusing the connection to CHD. Others were willing to learn and adjust their techniques to best work with him. Looking back, gross motor delays around 3-5 years old were the least of his challenges!

 

My oldest son with minor anatomical cardiac differences has multiple airway and pulmonary disorders, which include treatment from multiple specialists. Who knew the airway was as complex as the heart? His airway diagnoses are part of the outdated school of thought that “kids will eventually grow out of it”, so it has been a several years battle to find clinicians that specialize in and treat them. We are all excited for his evaluation next month and the possibility of a surgical repair!

 

 

Our family has made tough choices regarding medical treatment, mental health, and education for both of our children. They were not always popular amongst family or friends, but they were best for the kids. After eight years parenting these awesome warriors on the CHD roller-coaster, we are on the right track. For everyone starting out, remember to speak up and do so loudly. You are the
expert and your child’s primary care provider.

 

 

Rebeka Acosta lives in Las Vegas with her husband, two heart warriors and two Great Danes. A researcher by nature and healthcare finance coordinator by training, she enjoys keeping up with congenital cardiac literature and always reviews insurance claims line by line. Before relocating to Southern Nevada, Rebeka was a founding member of the Washington chapter of PCHA. She now volunteers on the National Steering Committee and enjoys attending the annual legislative conferences and
transparency summits. Rebeka welcomes connections at racosta@conqueringchd.org. You can also follow Gavin & Taosies’ CHD adventures on Instagram.

Beyond the Heart – Anna’s Story

The effects of Congenital Heart Disease aren’t limited to the heart. Patients will often experience complications with other body systems. This week Anna Archer shares her how her late CHD diagnosis caused a brain abscess.

Growing up and Diagnosis
I was your average, ordinary, little girl for the first decade of my life and lived an idyllic life with my (incredible) parents and eight sisters and brothers (yes, you read that right), in the Pacific Northwest. When I was ten, I started showing symptoms of my undiagnosed CHD. I started becoming slightly short of breath and cyanotic with exertion, I was easily fatigued, and I probably slept more than most kids my age. After running through a whole gamut of testing, we finally received my diagnosis of Tetralogy of Fallot with a VSD, Eisenmenger’s Syndrome, and Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension.

Surgery to repair my heart was not an option for me, so life meandered on after my diagnosis, but I maintained my health for most of my second decade, it declining only in the last year or two. A few months after I turned 20, I was listed for a double-lung and heart transplant. Many years later, I learned that my parents thought they might lose me that winter, but I survived, and, a few years later, I was thriving again. I became healthy enough to go off the list after six years on it. In September of 2012, I got married and moved to Southern Nevada, where I currently live.

To better understand the plot twist, you need to have some understanding of my heart. I have what is called a bidirectional shunt with my VSD. It acts as a “pop-off” valve if you will, allowing my blood to change directions as needed, to relieve the pressures between my heart and lungs. Bacteria that should get caught in my lungs and give me a cold, is able to bypass them, through the shunting in my VSD, and maneuver its way up to my brain. There it made itself comfy cozy and became a brain abscess.

Plot twist! AKA: The Brain Abscess
On Monday, February 25th, 2013, I had a headache. Now, this isn’t abnormal in and of itself, except it didn’t go away. I still had a headache on Tuesday, and Wednesday. It was a pulsing kind of headache. Sometimes it would be a dull ache, then I would get these waves of intense pain. By Thursday, I was becoming concerned that I had injured myself while working out with my husband the weekend before. Friday came and went with no improvement, despite caffeine, ibuprofen, oxygen, and resting all day. On Saturday, I had decided if it wasn’t better by Monday, I would call my cardiologist’s office and see what they recommended. I had only seen my new cardiologist twice at this point, so I still wasn’t very familiar with how everything worked at their office.

Around 3am on Sunday, March 3rd, I started vomiting. This is always taken very seriously, as I dehydrate quickly, and what little energy I normally have is drained almost immediately. After a second round of vomiting, I woke my husband up and asked him to take me to the ER; something was definitely wrong.

The ER was fairly quiet that night, and I was taken back almost immediately. They worked through everything respiratory/heart/lung related first, chest x-ray and bloodwork, the most obvious concerns with a CHD/PAH patient. After everything came back clear, they sent me for a head x-ray. I remember someone coming into my room and asking”have you ever had anything show up on your scans”, I said “not that I knew of,” and thought it kind of a silly thing to ask (little did I know). Then I was sent for a head MRI… I wasn’t as concerned as I, perhaps, should have been. I supposed that since my head hurt, it made sense they were checking it out. I never thought something would actually show up on those scans.

The ER doctor came in, and told me I had a mass in my brain, and I needed to have a brain biopsy done. I was shocked, and in some sort of denial, because I told him flat out that surgery wasn’t happening. They couldn’t do surgery on me, it was too risky, it was reserved for life and death situations, and this was obviously not a life or death situation. He insisted that I needed to wrap my mind around it, because it would have to be done. Then he told me to look up glioblastoma, then left the room after reiterating that I would need to have surgery. I knew what a glioblastoma was, one of our family friends had died from it. I looked it up anyways; one to two year survival rate with successful treatment. I called my Dad and cried as I explained what little I knew.

I have been blessed with amazing parents, my Dad is a respiratory therapist and my Mom went to nursing school. It took my Dad almost an hour to calm me down when I called him about my brain scans, and finally, he said he would call my Mom and tell her what was going on. I didn’t think I could do it and be any amount of comprehensible. A little while later my Mom called, and I cried with her. Somebody, I’m not sure if it was myself, or one of my parents, let the rest of my family know what was going on. I have also been blessed with amazing siblings. Each and every one of them has supported me through thick and thin. They worked things around in their lives so that Mom could fly out to Las Vegas to be with me for the impending surgery and recovery.

Somewhere in the mess of things, I was coherent enough to call my cardiologists office and let them know what was going on, as well as telling the ER people that they needed to connect with my cardiologists office. The neurosurgeon who was going to be performing my surgery came in sometime that Sunday. He looked over my scans and to talk to me and my husband. He was much more calm, and kind about things. He told us that “the mass in your brain could be any number of 100 or more different things, and I simply wouldn’t know more until I get in there to check it out during the biopsy”. I felt much better about things after talking to him; I’d had enough of this glioblastoma talk.

Surgery was scheduled for the next day, Monday, March 4th, but it ended up being postponed, because they couldn’t get my blood thick enough (I’d been on blood thinners since I was diagnosed). After a few platelet transfusions, and a couple of vitamin K shots, it was finally thick enough to schedule the biopsy. I count this as a blessing on multiple levels, as it allowed some extra time for my Mom and one of my brothers to fly into town that day.

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013, my six-month wedding anniversary, I had brain surgery. My family was told the biopsy would take around one and a half to three hours, so you can imagine the almost heart-attack they all had when the surgeon came out after 45 minutes! He said everything went great, the abscess was right next to my skull, and not buried into my brain, so he was able to remove the entire thing and flush it out with antibiotics and antibacterials, before closing me up again. The abscess ended up being about the size of a golf-ball or meyer lemon.

 

 

For the next day or two my timeline is a little wonky. It was my first experience being intubated, and my first experience with any kind of narcotic (I’m apparently fluent in ASL when I’m on narcotics, I don’t remember this). What I do remember, is that my husband, mom, brother, mother-in-law were all there. I was surrounded by a million beeping machines, and my family. My best friend flew into town a few days later, followed by my dad the next weekend. I was surrounded by those who loved me. I remember distinctly getting my hair dry-washed by a nurse, which was the most incredible feeling in the world at the time. The night nurse, who made my life sane again. My Dad talking medicalese to the doctors, to explain that resting oxygen levels in the mid 70’s were perfectly normal for me. Slowly entering the social media field again, and the outpouring of prayers and support from family and friends across the country. Continual jokes about having a “few loose screws” now.

The “short-term” recovery ended up taking just over two months. I was released from my Infectious Disease doctor on May 8th and Neurosurgeon on May 16th. I say “short-term” recovery, because I was still recovering from some aspects six months later, a year later, two years later, even now.

Some things I wish they had done, was suggest I see a psychologist, and do neuropsych testing. My abscess could’ve been much worse, bigger, deeper into my brain, in a different spot, any number of things could’ve made recovery that much harder and longer. There wasn’t anything obviously different, or wrong, after the surgery, but lots of teeny tiny things that slowly built up, and built up, and built up, to become large problems later on. My abscess was in the frontal left lobe of my brain, and the frontal lobe functions include things like mood, personality, memory, behavior, decision making, judgement, initiative, planning, reasoning, intelligence, movement, and inhibition. I lost all semblance of self-confidence. I forgot how to cope. I became incredibly jealous. I wasn’t the same, and I didn’t know it for awhile. When I figured it out, I didn’t know how to fix it. Rewiring the brain is hard work. It’s an exhausting, frustrating business.

After I had a bad reaction to some allergy medications in the summer of 2016, along with some of life’s tougher moments, I became severely depressed, and developed anxiety. I had called my cardiologists office to see if there were any medications I could take, and as I’m bawling my eyes out with my nurse, they told me they had a psychologist I could see. We made an appointment for the next day. It’s been an incredible, life-saving, life-changing experience. For the past year and a half, I’ve seen my psychologist every week to two weeks, and I can’t recommend it enough. We’ve worked a lot on rewiring my brain, learning how to cope in various situations, and to remember that I am enough.

It’s a continual process, learning who you are, and what you are capable of, if only you give yourself half a chance.

Anna (Becky) Archer is 31 and lives in Las Vegas, NV with her husband and kitten. When Becky isn’t busy at her part-time job as a filing clerk, you can find her playing video games, knitting,
crocheting, swimming in her pool, shooting photos, hiking, going to the movies, and hanging out with family and friends. She is a Heart Warrior, PHighter, and Survivor. She has a fierce
perseverance for living.

Advice – 10 Pieces of Advice for the New CHD Parent

Learning your child has a CHD can be overwhelming. Suddenly, you’re thrust into unfamiliar territory filled with strange terminology and new doctors. But so many families have bee there too, and they have so much knowledge to share, garnered through their experience.  PCHA recently asked the CHD Community,  families and patients, to share their advice for new parents feeling overwhelmed. This is what they had to say.

 

 

1. You Are NOT Alone

CHD is the number one birth defect, there are lot of parents or patients in your community to learn from and lean on. Parents often find it helpful to talk to each other, someone who knows what their going through.
Also, don’t be afraid to take your friends and family up on the help they offer. They love you, and are there to help lighten your load. Let them.

 

2. Take Care of Yourself

You want to be there for your Heart Warrior, but you are only human. Sometimes you need a break too. If you’re not getting the rest you need, you’re less able to effectively care for your child.

 

 

3. Go Easy on Yourself

When you learn your child has a CHD so many different emotions will flood through you. Remember this is normal. Be kind to yourself, and take comfort in that your Heart Warrior will understand you’re doing your best for them.

4. Treat Your Heart Warrior as “Normal” as Possible

Let your Heart Warrior find their own limits, and push them to enjoy as much of life as they can. It’s important that they also learn responsibility and accountability, like their heart healthy counterparts. They  will need to be able to manage their own care and know their condition as they grow up.

 

 

 

 

5. You are Stronger than You Think

The diagnosis is scary, and it can be overwhelming, but you are more capable than you think. And so is your Heart Warrior. Their propensity for resilience may surprise you and provide you will courage.

 

 

6. Take One Day at a Time

There will be good days and bad days, sometimes good hours and bad hours. Enjoy every positive moment, and try not to spend time worrying too much about the future.

 

 

7.  Don’t be Afraid to Advocate for Your Child

It’s OK to question your child’s doctor. It’s OK to get 2nd opinions. You are your child’s voice, and it’s OK to speak up when you need clarification or when your uncomfortable with a situation.

 

 

8. Every Child is Different

It is natural to want to know what to expect and compare our Heart Warrior’s journey with others that have the same CHD. But what goes for one child, may not be true for another.

 

9. Ask Questions and Keep Records

Your child’s doctors will throw a lot of new terms at you and explain unfamiliar procedures. Ask questions about what you don’t understand. There is no such thing as a stupid question.
Write it down. Anything that is important or difficult to remember, write it down.  Keeping records is important to keep things straight , especially if you are seeing multiple doctors at various locations.

10. Educate Yourself

Don’t Google. Make sure you find trusted resources to learn about your child’s condition. Soon you will be an expert in your own right. Be sure the material you read is reliable. Ask your child’s doctor or other heart families for recommendations of sources of information.

 

*Please note the information in this post is not meant to be a substitute for medical advice.

Lifespan – Just Like Me, in D.C.

One of the most powerful moments at the Congenital Heart Legislative Conference can come not when shaking hands with one of our nation’s leaders, but when you have the chance to connect with someone just like you, just like your child, an everyday CHD survivor. Ken Woodhouse, and adult CHD patient with tetralogy of fallot, Melanie Toth, and her son Luke, a young patient with tetralogy of fallot, share their thoughts on just such an experience in this Q&A.

 

Ken and Luke in Washington D.C,

 

PCHA:  Tell us a little about yourself. How has CHD impacted your life?

Melanie:  I was born and raised in Chicago. I married my best friend Ben at age 23. After Ben was involved in a bad motorcycle accident we realized, tomorrow isn’t promised and wanted to start a family right away. At our 20 week ultrasound we heard the words that change the world for so many families, there is something wrong with your baby’s heart. Before CHD, I never thought about volunteering and how you can help others on almost a daily basis. CHD has opened my eyes, my heart, and changed me for the better. I remind myself of that on days when CHD can really suck!

Ken: I was born in 1981 with tetralogy of Fallot and had my first open heart surgery at eight months old. Like many young adults (especially those, like me, who were asymptomatic), I thought I was “fixed” and fell out of cardiology care in late high school / early college. Between that time and 2011 (at the age of 30), when I literally fell back into care after a bicycling accident, I never really thought of myself as a heart
patient. But since that accident, I have gotten very involved with the CHD community as a volunteer and
advocate. In 2014, I had my second open heart surgery to replace my original pulmonary valve, which
had been leaking since birth.

Having a CHD has forced/reminded me to make my health a priority and to focus on the many positive
aspects of my life. (It can be a challenge to do so from time to time, especially when one lives with a
chronic health condition.) At the same time, being a part of the CHD community has introduced me to
some of the strongest, bravest, and most amazing people I know – many of whom have become dear
friends; and I am forever grateful for those connections.

PCHA: What brought you to D.C.? What inspired you to speak to Legislators on Capitol Hill and what were you hoping to accomplish?

Melanie: After Luke was born, I began questioning so many things about why this happened. I didn’t want to dwell on the negative. I found that helping other heart families with support really helped me. After many years of offering support to heart families, I wanted to do more and Legislative Conference was always on my “bucket list” to attend. Many friends both heart parents and patients attended this conference and felt so empowered after coming home. I wanted to feel that way too. I was hoping that sharing our heart journey would help heart warriors just like Luke now and in the future.

Ken: I first went to DC for CHD lobby/advocacy day in 2012, and I’ve gone almost every year since; 2014 was the only exception, as the event was shortly after my second surgery. I don’t recall a specific impetus for my initial visit; I think it just felt like the next/best way for me to get more involved in the cause.

PCHA: Melanie, tell us how you all met. As a mom, what was it like to get to meet Ken and hear his story?

Melanie: We all met by having our first Hill visits scheduled together. I had briefly met Ken before but never really had to opportunity to talk. In walking together to our first visit, we began to talk about the day ahead. In our first meeting, hearing Ken speak directly after Luke and I, starting with, “I’m the adult version of Luke,” it made me realize that one day, that could be Luke. One day that could be Luke speaking from his perspective how CHD has impacted his life. I hope Luke will grow up to be driven, smart, motivated, and a CHD Advocate like Ken.

I always feel some connection to heart families but Ken’s positive and energetic personality was an inspiration. I have met many adults with CHD over the past decade but there was something different about meeting Ken. Just a different feeling like Ken and Luke should have met that day.  Luke is pretty shy and when we came home his teacher asked him to do a PowerPoint about our trip. Luke put it together (with little help from me) and was so excited to share with his friends and teacher that he made a difference in D.C. Not being afraid to tell his story came from his interact with Ken.

PCHA:  Ken, what was it like for you to meet and hang out with Luke? Did it remind you  of your own childhood experience?

Ken: I met Luke and his mom Melanie on our walk from the conference hotel to our first Capitol Hill visits of the day. As it happened that morning, I think it’s common for heart patients and families to connect
over shared experiences, especially in a setting like the legislative conference.

I always enjoy meeting fellow CHD patients, and I think there’s an extra connection when you share the
same defect—tetralogy of Fallot, in our case. With respect to advocacy, my childhood was nothing like
Luke’s. Advocacy and lifelong care were nowhere on my radar at his age. I was asymptomatic as a child
so I never really gave my heart a second thought. When I was younger, my scar felt more like a
birthmark than anything because I didn’t remember that initial surgery as a baby. As an adult – and
knowing what I know now – it’s exciting and encouraging to see young CHD warriors getting involved to
the degree that Luke is.

PCHA:   Luke, how’d you like meeting Ken? Was it cool to meet an adult like you?

Luke: I really liked meeting Ken. He was really funny and laughed at all of my jokes. I met a few kids with special hearts at D.C., but none with the same defect like me. Ken is a SUPER cool tetralogy of fallot warrior, like me.

PCHA:  So how did your DC visit go? Were the legislators receptive to you message?

Melanie: Hill visits this year went great! In Illinois we are fortunate to have so many that attend from our state. We were partnered with heart parents, heart patients (all ages), medical staff, siblings, and bereaved families. It really showed that CHD is lifelong, never cured, with different outcomes. Our last visit with Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi was a 100% yes as a Co-Sponsor as he is a fellow heart dad. It was a great why to end the day with a yes!

Ken:  While we got to meet Senator Durbin and Representative Bilirakis during the conference, our actual Hill visits (mine, at least) were solely with legislative staffers. In general, everyone I met with was receptive
to our message, to our stories, and to our requests (generally speaking). But the real work, I believe, is in
building the ongoing relationships to continually push for our issues. Nothing happens quickly in DC, and
in order for our advocacy work to truly be successful, we must stay in touch with our elected leaders in
Congress so that our issues remain front and center for them.

PCHA: What did your trip – and your new found friendships – teach you?

Ken: 2018 marked the sixth year that I attended the legislative conference, and I initially wasn’t sure I would learn anything this time around. The format stays pretty consistent each year, and I approached it
primarily as continuing the long but necessary journey toward increased awareness and funding for the
CHD community.

Rather than teaching me something, I think this year’s trip just reminded me that sometimes you can
have an unexpected impact on others when you’re not even trying to and when you least expect it. I
initially got involved in CHD advocacy for myself because of my own personal interests. I never intended
to be inspiring to—or a role model for—others. But meeting people like Luke and Melanie reminded me
that being an adult thriving with CHD can offer hope and encouragement for the younger generation
and their families.

Melanie: Although this was my third conference, it was my the first time my inspiration –  Luke – was by my side. This trip taught me that no matter how long you’ve been in the CHD community, everyone has a powerful story and can inspire you when you least expect it!

PCHA:  What are your hopes for the future of the CHD community?

Ken: There are a lot of strong and passionate voices within the CHD community – and for good reason. I think that continued partnership and collaboration among all members and organizations will only make our voices stronger. At the broadest level, I think the country is facing a serious public health issue with
respect to CHD. Thanks to medical advances, people with CHD are living longer than they have in the
past; and we’re at a point where there are now more adults than children living with CHD. Yet there is a
severe shortage of certified congenital cardiologists to care for the growing and aging population. And at
the same time, we’re not – in a significant enough way – on the radars of Congress, the broader medical
community, major philanthropy, or the general public.

My hope for the CHD community is that we are able to make a real impact to significantly increase
awareness, funding, and –as a result – better longer term outcomes for our CHD warriors. When we talk
about advocacy, we frequently refer only to our work with our elected officials at the federal and state
levels. And no doubt that work is crucial! But I think CHD advocacy is much larger than that. I think
increasing awareness in all areas of our lives is just as important – whether that’s with our primary care
doctors, our families, our friends, our partners and spouses, and anyone else who will listen.

Melanie: Luke got to see what we can do as a heart community together, one voice, we can accomplish so much. My hope is for Luke to continue to use his voice in the CHD community, not just for himself, but all heart warriors from the past, present, and future.

 

 

Ken Woodhouse was born in 1981 with a congenital heart defect (CHD) known as tetralogy of Fallot. He had his first open heart surgery at the age of eight months; and like many individuals with CHD, he originally thought he was “fixed” after that surgery. Ken never really considered myself a heart patient when he was younger, and fell out of cardiology care for over a decade between his mid-teens and late 20s. A bicycling accident in August 2011 resulted in a concussion and a trip to the emergency room. While Ken was not seriously injured, a series of follow-up tests revealed that he had an aneurysm in his pulmonary artery; and the reality quickly set in that his CHD was not fixed. In fact, Ken would need additional intervention in the not-too-distant future and specialized care for the rest of his life.

Shortly after that accident, Ken became active in the congenital heart defect/disease community. As an advocate and speaker, he has had the opportunity to share his own story and to help raise awareness on Capitol Hill and at events across the country. Ken is currently a Senior Ambassador and a blogger with the Adult Congenital Heart Association; and his volunteer work in the CHD community has also given him the chance to collaborate with The Children’s Heart Foundation and the Pediatric Congenital Heart Association. Ken feels he is extremely fortunate to have been able to live a healthy and active life. He has always loved the outdoors, cycling in particular.

Melanie’s heart journey began in June 2008, during a routine 20 week ultrasound. She and husband were devastated by the news that their unborn son Luke would be born with a congenital heart defect (Tetralogy of Fallot) and required heart surgery at a week old and again at 9 months old. Feeling very scared and alone during the roller coaster ride of a CHD journey, Melanie decided that no other heart family should feel alone. In 2010, she has started a support group for heart families in Chicago. Working nationally and locally with various CHD organizations. In 2016, she began volunteering with PCHA’s new state chapters, to offer families more than just support. She is currently the State Chapter Coordinator for PCHA National helping to develop state chapters.

 

New Diagnosis – Brooke’s Story

This Week, Brooke Wilkerson shares the story of her son’s prenatal misdiagnosis, the correct diagnosis after birth, and the roller coaster of emotions the journey brought. 

“There’s something wrong with your baby’s heart.”

“Just say it,” I thought, “Just tell me that there is something wrong so that I can mentally prepare myself for what’s ahead.”

At eight months pregnant, I never thought I would think these things. I never thought that I would actually wish for that statement. But, I did. I wanted to hear those words because not knowing was agonizing. There was a lump in my throat that formed at our twenty week anatomy scan and it wasn’t able to release until I knew, for sure. I knew that there was something wrong. They thought that something might be wrong. But no one could confirm it.

Every month, I would make the long commute to Louisville, to see a specialist who told me the same thing every time- “We can’t get a clear picture of his heart. Everything else looks okay- he’s growing and active- but we can’t say, for sure, if there’s something wrong.”

Every time, multiple technician’s would have a go at my son’s anatomy scan, like a game of darts, and when no one could hit the bull’s eye, they’d eventually give up. They just didn’t know.

Every month I would get my hopes up that today would be the day that they just delivered the devastating news; that they would tell me what was wrong; that they would tell me that the reason why they couldn’t get a good picture of his heart is because it wasn’t normal. I was on the cusp of having my life turned upside down and the anticipation had me by the throat. Every appointment lasted over an hour and for about 4-5 months, I made the drive, I laid on the uncomfortable bed for over an hour just to get the same result. This limbo that we were in changed everything.

I knew that my baby was okay in the womb, and I no longer looked forward to his birth. I just wanted him to stay put- to stay safe- because his birth now came with a lot of uncertainties and fear. At least, while he was still with me, I could feel him move everyday and know that he’s okay; I could take comfort in knowing that, while his heart may not support him after birth, I could carry the weight for him right now.

As we neared my due date, the pressure was intense. Our local hospital was not equipped to deal with a baby with a CHD, and we had to decide if we wanted to deliver there or in Louisville- 1.5 hours away. By delivering locally, we risked being separated if baby Miles was transferred to the children’s hospital.

Four weeks until my due date, and we had, what was supposed to be my last fetal echocardiogram. Again, the results were the same. No one knew. They couldn’t confirm or deny. If they had to guess, he was okay- but what were the consequences if they were wrong? No one was confident enough to place a bet. The cardiologist asked me if I wanted to come back in two weeks, and try one last time and I agreed, even though I knew what would happen. I no longer expected an answer.

The morning of my last echo, I wasn’t expecting an answer. I fully expected it to be just like the other ones- leaving disappointed. The technicians all took their turns, and then the last cardiologist in the practice, who we hadn’t seen, yet, Dr. Holland, took a go at it. He left the room, and came back with a pen and paper in hand, and when he spoke the words, “Tetraology of Fallot,” I was completely taken aback.

I don’t remember what he said after that, aside from “open-heart surgery between four to six months old.” I clearly remember tuning out his words, and telling myself to hold it together- “Don’t cry. Just smile and nod.” Did I even speak after that?

My throat was on fire, and my heart was racing. I had finally gotten what I had asked for- an answer. As he drew two hearts on a piece of paper- one normal, and one, my baby’s- I tried to focus on my restless two year old and act like this was okay- just another day at the doctor’s office. He told me that we would deliver in Louisville, and that there would be a full heart team on stand-by, but we still didn’t know what to expect or how severe his disease was.

As soon as I opened my car door, the four month old lump in my throat exploded. I hadn’t even comprehended what he had said- I didn’t even remember the name of the diagnosis and, had he not written it out on that paper for me, I wouldn’t have known what to tell my husband, who had been texting me non-stop when this appointment went longer than the others.

My baby was going to require open heart surgery to survive. I remember how the words, “open heart surgery” stung; how they felt so foreign and extreme, and I remember saying those words as if they were a question when we told our family about his CHD.

We didn’t know what would happen when Miles was born. Would he be pink? Blue? There were so many people in the delivery room, ready to jump into action. I think I held my breath when I felt them pull him from my womb- waiting to hear him cry.

“Please, cry. Scream, Miles! Let me hear you cry!” I thought, but, I didn’t have to hold my breath for very long, because he did cry. And he screamed. And when they held him up over the curtain, he was a chunky, eight pound, PINK baby!

“Thank you, Jesus.”

His first echo, out of the womb, told a different story. We were told that he did NOT have Tetraology of Fallot, that he would NOT require open heart surgery, and that the hole in his heart would heal on it’s own.

Suddenly, all of the suffering and waiting was worth it. I’d do it all over again, if I knew that they would be wrong. We shared the good news with our friends and family, left the hospital several days later and, for the first time in months, breathed a little easier.

But, that was short-lived. At Miles’ follow-up echo, a week later, Dr. Holland apologized when he told me that they got it wrong. I could tell that he felt so bad when he told me that he saw the first echo and had agreed with the cardiologist on staff when Miles was born! He couldn’t explain to me what happened- why we were on this roller coaster- but, he was confident when he told me, again, that Miles DID have Tetraology of Fallot and that he DID need open heart surgery.

Again, I was not expecting that. I remember thinking to myself, either Dr. Holland is really great at his job- so great, that he’s able to see things that no one else is seeing- or he’s really terrible and subsequently, torturing us.

My husband, our friends and family- nobody really believed him this time.

“Doctors misdiagnose all the time,” they told me.

“There isn’t a thing wrong with that baby,” they stated.

And, for the most part, they were right. Aside from a heart murmur, Miles didn’t show any symptoms of a heart defect. His O2 levels were always good; He never had breathing troubles; He never turned blue. If I didn’t know any better, I would think that he was completely normal.

And while so many people around us didn’t want to believe it, I did believe it, and I don’t know why. But, I’m glad that I did. I’m glad that I listened when Dr. Holland told me what the symptoms of congestive heart failure would be, because when Miles started showing them, he went downhill quickly.

All of a sudden, at 3 months old, Miles was having subcostal retractions that didn’t improve with medicine, he was breathing hard, and you could see his heart moving in his chest, he started to sleep all day and all night long, and he couldn’t stay awake long enough to finish eating.

His heart was failing. Dr. Holland was right.

Miles’ heart was enlarged, because, just like a muscle, when a heart is working hard, it grows- it gets bigger. And his heart had been working really hard to appear “normal” all this time. But, it couldn’t do it any longer.

At four months old, Miles had open heart surgery. We are so incredibly blessed that his surgery went well. Aside from a few complications, we were able to go home (for good) after ten days in the hospital. Miles’ heart was finally able to rest, and in no time, you couldn’t see it moving anymore. He quickly caught up on his weight, and he was happy to eat without tiring.

As it turns out, Dr. Holland is an amazing doctor, and Miles’ VSD (the hole in his heart) was actually much larger than they had anticipated. He’s now the basis for this blog- my sour patch kid, as I call him. And while, most days, he drives me insane with his mischievousness and curiosity, I can’t help but be in awe of him.

Aside from his thin, jagged scar and pacer wire scars, you’d never know that he was born with a congenital heart defect. You’d never know that, historically, Miles wouldn’t have survived. You wouldn’t know that after his open heart surgery, he required a pacemaker because his heart wasn’t working properly. You’d never know that he caught a virus in the hospital and had to be re-admitted after being released just a day prior. You’d never know that at just four months old, his life was saved.

We are forever indebted to that team of doctors and nurses.

Brooke Wilkerson is a 28 year old wife and mom to three, living in the Nashville, TN area. Brooke also started the Coffee & Chaos Blog last year, which is all about motherhood, marriage, and how to laugh at the chaos. Her middle child, Miles, was born with a CHD and required open heart surgery at 4 months old. He’s also the inspiration behind the blog, due to his mischievous personality. He’s doing great now, and there are no future surgeries planned for him! Brooke uses her platform to raise awareness for CHD and is hosting an event this October where a portion of the proceeds will be donated to PCHA.

New Diagnosis – Pulse Oximetry

This week we will hear two perspectives on the benefits of pulse ox and the effort to make this non-invasive test a standard screening of newborns. Pulse Ox screening has made it possible to detect CHD in many newborns that would have otherwise gone home undiagnosed. This week’s contributions were provided by Dr. Gerard Martin, a pediatric cardiologist, and Ms. Lisa Wandler, a pediatric nurse, from the  Children’s National Heart Institute and  Dr. Matt Oster, MD, MPH , a pediatric cardiologist at Sibley Heart Center Cardiology at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

 

 

Dr. Gerard Martin, a pediatric cardiologist, and Ms. Lisa Wandler, a pediatric nurse, from the  Children’s National Heart Institute discuss with us how pulse oximetry screening works , as well as its benefits and limitations. 

Screening infants for Critical Congenital Heart Disease (CCHD) using pulse oximetry is recommended in the United States, but this was not always the case!  As of this summer, all 50 states and the District of Columbia will be screening for CCHD.  In many countries, this important life-saving screen is not yet standard for every newborn.  

How CCHD pulse oximetry screening works:

CCHD screening is simple, painless and takes only a few minutes to perform.  It typically takes place around 24 hours after birth either in the newborn nursery or in the mother’s room.  A sticker with a special light probe is placed on the baby’s right hand and either foot.  The measurement that the light probe takes helps the medical team determine whether the baby may have CCHD and require further assessment and testing.

How it has changed standard screening for newborns:

Prior to the implementation of CCHD screening, as many as 50% of infants with CCHD were being discharged from the hospital without anyone knowing of their heart problem.  Without CCHD screening using pulse oximetry, routine newborn screening could help identify hearing and other rare but serious conditions in babies just after birth but not heart defects.  

Benefits/importance of screening:

An undetected heart problem in a baby can lead to severe health problems for the baby and even death.  This newborn screen has helped to decrease the number of babies lost to undiagnosed heart defects and saved many lives.  The CDC continues to investigate the impact CCHD screening has had in the U.S., but an early estimate is that the number of deaths due to CCHD has gone down by 33% in states requiring this important newborn screen.

Limitations of screening using pulse oximetry:

Screening improves the detection of CCHD, however, not all types of CCHD are able to be detected using this screening method.  It remains important to follow the instructions of a baby’s pediatrician and other doctors as newborn assessment and pre-natal ultrasound remain important other ways CCHD can be identified.

Early symptoms of CCHD can include rapid breathing, difficulty feeding and bluish skin.  If your baby has these symptoms, tell the baby’s doctor.

 

The Critical Congenital Heart Disease Screening Program at Children’s National Heart Institute is composed of Dr. Gerard Martin, a pediatric cardiologist and Ms. Lisa Wandler, a pediatric nurse.  The team at Children’s National has worked on implementation, education and CCHD screening advocacy for over ten years and has provided guidance at the local, state and international levels to those interested in CCHD screening using pulse oximetry.  The team can be contacted at pulseox@cnmc.org

Gerard Martin headshot, cardiologist, children’s national heart institute

 

 

 

Dr. Matt Oster, MD, MPH  discusses the progress brought by pulse ox and the distance yet to go. 

 

In my medical career, I’ve been able to see what was once just a promise or an idea be transformed into reality – the ability to screen well-appearing newborns for critical congenital heart disease. While a baby may appear completely well by anyone who sees her, lurking beneath the surface could be subtle hypoxemia – an abnormally low concentration of oxygen in the blood.- secondary to a congenital heart defect. The application of pulse oximetry to detect such hypoxemia has thus allowed clinicians to detect many previously undiagnosed cases sooner, a change
that has led to decreased infant mortality from critical congenital heart disease.

This dramatic change in the care of newborns did not come easily. It took scientists studying the issue to determine whether this could work. It took policy makers the vision to implement this change in their regions. And, most importantly, it took the tireless advocacy of parents and others to call for, and when needed essentially demand, such change.

The application of pulse oximetry to screen for critical congenital heart disease is a true public health success story. And, it has even seen spillover effects in that many children with hypoxemia due to causes other than heart disease are being detected and treated. However, there is still much work to be done. We need to figure out the best way to implement this screening in special settings such as the neonatal intensive care units, home births, or areas of high altitude. We need to improve the quality of the program so that it is implemented consistently and correctly for all newborn. We need to help public health agencies monitor and track the success of this program.

But the biggest change we need to make is figure out a way to increase the sensitivity of the screening. Yes, the program has detected thousands of babies that may have previously gone undetected. But there are still many newborns with critical congenital heart disease that are being missed, even newborns with hypoplastic left heart syndrome. This is typically due to the fact that hypoxemia may not yet be present. We need improved diagnosed methods beyond pulse oximetry to help detect these children. This is not an easy task, but scientists are indeed working on it. And when it’s ready, we’ll need the help of advocates and policymakers to make it a reality.

 

Dr. Matt Oster, MD, MPH is a pediatric cardiologist at Sibley Heart Center Cardiology at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, and he holds Emory appointments of Associate Professor of Pediatrics in the School of Medicine and Associate Professor of Epidemiology in the School of Public Health. He earned his MD at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and his MPH in epidemiology at Emory University Rollins School of Public Health. After completing residency training in pediatrics at the University of California-San Francisco, he did fellowship training in pediatric cardiology at Emory University. When not seeing patients, he serves as director of the Children’s Cardiac Outcomes Research Program at Sibley Heart Center. His research interests include newborn screening for congenital heart disease, the epidemiology of congenital heart disease, and long-term outcomes for patients with congenital heart disease.