Heart screenings for children and adolescents should be mandatory and a routine part of yearly physicals, unfortunately, the American medical community generally considers such exams unnecessary. This erroneous belief and the fact that most pediatricians do not recommend regular heart screenings to parents, makes events like CHD (Congenital Heart Defect) Awareness Week (February 7-14) a necessity.
Early heart screenings can and do save lives. One example is the case of, then sixth grader, Madelinne d’Aversa who was born with a hole in her heart. If her grandmother had not volunteered her to have a heart exam as part of the Houston Early Age Risk Testing and Screening (aka HEARTS) she may not be alive today. Madelinne showed no outward signs of a heart condition, so, without that scan, her heart defect may have gone undetected until an autopsy revealed it as the cause of her passing, some day in the future. Instead, Madelinne had surgery and was back to “normal”, dancing and playing volleyball at school, only four months later.
The state of North Carolina has undoubtedly saved at least one young life with the passage of a law in 2013 that makes a test known as “pulse ox,” mandatory for all newborns in the state. The pulse oximetry test measures the amount of oxygen in one’s blood. This simple, noninvasive test saved the life of a baby girl named Jovie Faye Smith, who was born last October. At birth, she seemed perfectly healthy. Her mother said, “You never would have known anything was wrong with her.” Unfortunately, there was something wrong with her.
Low pulse ox reading lead to further examinations and an EKG (echocardiogram) which revealed a coarctation of the aorta – a narrowing of the major artery that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body. To make matters worse, the left side of Jovie’s heart was mildly hypoplastic – meaning that the left ventricle was slightly underdeveloped, which affects blood flow. At 1 week old, Jovie had surgery to remove the narrow section of the aorta and the two good ends were sewn together. In addition, the doctors closed the ductus arteriosus, an opening that usually closes within two weeks after birth; Jovie’s had not closed and actually helped keep her stable prior to the discovery of her heart defect by bypassing the aorta with oxygenated blood. The operation was a success, and now, at 3 months old, Jovie is off all medications.
These two stories have a happy ending, but there are many more stories of children with congenital heart defects that did not end in relieved joy. If you are a parent or guardian, I hope that you will have your child(ren) screened for a possible heart defect, whether your pediatrician believes it is necessary or not. Remember Madelinne and Jovie, and that early detection really can save lives.