“Uno, dos, tres, quatro, cinco…” 2-year-old Hannah O’Donnell is playing with colored beads and counting in Spanish as she awaits a check-up with Dr. Neil Devejian, the head of Pediatric Cardiothoracic Surgery at the Bernard & Millie Duker Children's Hospital at Albany Medical Center. The happy, and now healthy, toddler cannot even remember the two heart operations she’s already had at this young age.
Hannah was born with multiple serious heart defects, including holes in the wall dividing the left and right ventricles of the heart. While these types of “VSDs” (ventricular septum defects) are the most common type of heart defect affecting newborns, in most cases they are diagnosed and treated successfully with few or no complications.
However, Hannah’s problems were more complex. Dr. Devejian described her VSD’s as “swiss cheese septum” —numerous holes in very difficult locations. In addition, she had a narrowing of the aorta, the major blood vessel carrying blood away from the heart to the body, and a small left ventricle.
“We knew before Hannah was born that she had some issues with her heart,” said her mom, Kate. “No one knew then how serious her heart problems were.”
Taken together, all these problems made Hannah’s situation, “notoriously difficult,” says Dr. Devejian. He operated on Hannah soon after she was born to repair her aorta but she had to wait almost a year to be ready for surgery to correct the VSDs.
After Hannah turned 11 months old, Dr. Devejian and his team used an innovative and painstakingly intensive technique to close the holes in her heart. This hybrid approach, a combination of surgical and cardiac interventional techniques, has been in use for about five years. It involves a cardiologist maneuvering a catheter with a camera inside the patient’s heart, while a cardiac surgeon closes each little hole in the ventricular septum, one by one.
After getting a clean bill of health at her 2-year-old check-up, Hannah is on her way to growing up to reach her full potential.