This article originally appeared in the March 8, 2012, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
February has been designated as Heart Month, but heart health should be on our minds the other 11 months as well. Heart problems don’t only affect adults. In fact, heart problems are among the most common birth defects in the United States.
About 35,000 babies – 1 out of every 125 – are born with heart defects in the United States every year. Fortunately, medicine has advanced significantly to help many of these babies who might not have survived just a decade ago.
The survival rate of children who received treatment for a congenital heart defect at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center was greater than 99 percent in 2011. This is significantly better than in days gone by and represents how much research and work has gone into treating heart problems in young patients.
“Doctors have been able to do interventions in the cath lab that historically have required surgery to correct,” said Dr. Charles Huddleston, cardiothoracic surgeon at SSM Cardinal Glennon and professor at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. “There has also been a more focused effort in the intensive care unit to provide that strong continuum of care.”
Many congenital heart problems can be detected while the baby is still in the womb, with technology like fetal echocardiograms. Places like the St. Louis Fetal Care Institute at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center can find these problems early in the pregnancy and make treatment plans to keep Baby as healthy as possible before and after the birth.
Babies with congenital heart problems will often require an operation immediately after birth. A procedure called a heart catheterization can diagnose heart conditions and can actually treat some of them. Sometimes, the heart catheterization shows that immediate surgery is needed.
At Cardinal Glennon, a pediatric hybrid cardiac catheterization suite allows a pediatric cardiologist to find a problem and a heart surgeon to fix the problem, in the same room and during the same procedure.
There are many common congenital heart problems and ways to treat them. Many children with heart defects require multiple surgeries in the first few years of their lives.
Orion Smithey, 4, of Hawk Point, Mo., was born with hypoplastic left heart, a combination of disorders that causes a left ventricle that is too small. His congenital heart defect was diagnosed when mom Julie Smithey was 21 weeks pregnant. Learning about her diagnosis early gave doctors and the family time to formulate a treatment plan, but Smithey still worried about what her child would endure.
“We went on a lot of websites and did a lot of research,” Smithey said. “Orion had his first cardiac cath when he was 24 hours old and his first open heart surgery at 7 months old. We wanted to be as prepared as possible for what was coming.”
Orion’s most recent surgery was in April 2011. Although Orion has experienced a lot in his young life, he continues to thrive. He is going to pre-school, talking nonstop and playing tag outside with his sister. He loves riding his bike and playing video games.
Advances in heart care allow many children who are born with heart problems to live healthy, normal lives. As we continue to do research, we hope to make even greater strides in the treatment of heart problems in children.
Research shows that most congenital heart problems cannot be prevented. There are, however, some steps women who plan to become pregnant can undertake to reduce the chance of congenital heart problems, according to the March of Dimes:
- Take a multivitamin with 400 micrograms of folic acid daily, starting before pregnancy.
- Visit a doctor before conceiving to be tested for immunity to rubella and receive a vaccination, if needed. Women with chronic health conditions such as diabetes should discuss their medications and eating habits to get those conditions under control before conceiving and during pregnancy.
- Tell your doctor about all medications, even over-the-counter or herbal medicines.
- Avoid those who have the flu or other illnesses with fever while they are contagious.
- Avoid exposure to organic solvents used in products such as paints, varnishes or cleaning agents.
Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. If you have a question about your child’s health, go to the “Ask Dr. Bob” section of the Cardinal Glennon Web site at www.cardinalglennon.com.