Healing Holes in the Heart

February 2, 2009 6:57:39 PM PST
Every year in the United States 17,000 children are born with a hole between chambers in their heart. It forces their hearts to work overtime, creating a life-threatening situation. Doctors are now patching the holes without even opening the chest. Fifteen-year-old Anja Fortier has always had that funny feeling.

"You know when you get nervous and you get butterflies in your stomach? It kind of felt like that," Fortier recalled to Ivanhoe.

But the butterflies were actually in her heart. She was born with an atrial septal defect -- a hole between her heart's two upper chambers. That put her at risk for serious heart problems.

"It gets tight," she described. "It feels tight in my chest sometimes."

Fixing a problem like Fortier's used to mean open heart surgery. Today, she's having a far less invasive procedure that closes the hole with a prosthetic patch.

The procedure takes less than an hour. Guided by real-time imaging, doctors send a catheter through the femoral vein. A thin tube guides the patch into the heart. Once it's in place over the hole, it's visible on the ultrasound. Over time, tissue grows over it, sealing it in place permanently.

"It's really awesome to be able to come in on the day of the procedure, have it done and go home either that day or the next day without any surgery, without any incision and any stitches," Robert Vincent, M.D., a pediatric cardiologist at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, told Ivanhoe.

Ashley Akins had the same heart repair less than a year ago. An avid cheerleader, she's now back on the squad and has plenty to cheer about.

"Before I'd just be really out of breath and stuff," she told Ivanhoe. "I could tell a big difference after I had it done just in this year. With cheerleading it feels so much easier."

Akins is now teen who now has no heart problems and no limits.

Patients who undergo the heart repair procedure are usually able to go home that day or the day after procedure. Long term, doctors say the results are just as effective as the traditional open heart repair surgery, though that approach is still used in some cases.

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