Figure courtesy of NASA
As the mother of a son with a single ventricle heart, I am always excited to see advancements in research for people born with “half a heart.” There is some very exciting news for those of us in the heart world who have had a Fontan Procedure. You can read about this research all over the Internet, but I really liked how Technology.org wrote about it.
Instead of just regurgitating what the article discusses (it’s short and better for people interested in it to just check it out themselves since there’s a cool, short video clip to accompany the article), let me briefly discuss the importance of this discovery. Twenty-one years ago, when my son was born, there weren’t that many people with hypoplastic left heart syndrome surviving to adulthood. In fact, the surgeon said my son only had a 25% chance to survive to age 5 if he survived the first surgery. Way back then the doctors had no clue what would happen to adult survivors because there wasn’t a big enough cohort to warrant anything more than case studies. All of that has changed recently.
What kind of problems can occur when you’re born with half a heart? Not surprisingly, the heart can simply wear out. Other problems can occur, too, though because the Fontan physiology changes the heart’s function from that of pumping blood to the body and to the lungs (for oxygen) into a sole-purpose machine — pump the blood to the body at all costs. The surgeons create a baffle that carries the oxygen-poor blood to the lungs to get oxygen and it travels there passively thanks to the natural blood pressures that occur in the heart. One of the potential consequences of a Fontan heart is that the body may create more red blood cells than a heart-healthy person. This is a way the body can compensate for having a lower oxygen saturation level. It’s pretty miraculous the way it works but it isn’t perfect.
One of the potential problems comes from the other organs having to process so many red blood cells. This can really tax the liver. This can cause liver enlargement. Another potential problem is that the heart may just wear out. Sometimes the walls of the heart thicken. One of the most common problems simply comes from having the heart operated on multiple times. Scar tissue can develop on places where the heart has been cut. This maximizes the opportunity for arrhythmias to occur.
The new device the NASA scientists and doctors at Indiana University have created won’t be able to fix all of those problems but it might help a person whose heart is simply wearing out. There are not enough donor hearts available for all of the people waiting for a heart so this might help people live a little longer until a heart is available or perhaps it will work sufficiently for a transplant to be unnecessary!
In the meantime we parents are going to keep watching for the latest research available to help our Heart Warriors. A dear friend of mine is doing much more than just watching. She is helping to raise money for research by walking . . . a lot! Anita Moreno Marcelo is the mother of a Heart Warrior who needs for research to stay a step ahead of him and his mother is willing to put one foot in front of another to walk her way to a cure for her son. Check out Anita’s new passion: The Gabriel Project. If you’d like to walk and raise money for research, too, please let Anita know. If you just want to applaud her efforts, those notes of encouragement are happily received, too. It’s amazing what we can accomplish if we all work together.
Image courtesy of zole4 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net