CHOC Children’s Heart Institute Helps Teen Runner Overcome Hurdles

Born with transposition of the great arteries (TGA), now 17-year-old Ryan Smith was rushed to CHOC Children’s Hospital, where he underwent an emergency procedure to regulate the flow of oxygen through his body until open-heart surgery could be performed a week later, and he spent two months at CHOC. TGA is a condition in which the large vessels that carry blood from the heart to the lungs, and to the body, are improperly connected.

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Ryan’s condition was severe, and his parents were advised that surgery would be complicated and long — roughly seven hours. During the operation, Dr. Richard Gates, cardiothoracic surgeon and co-medical director of CHOC Children’s Heart Institute, disconnected Ryan’s aorta and pulmonary artery before switching them back to their normal positions. The aorta was stitched to the left ventricle, and the pulmonary artery to the right ventricle. The coronary arteries were freed and connected back to the aorta. Ryan’s chest was left open for a few days while he healed.

Throughout his recovery, Ryan’s family remained by his side. They watched as he continued to fight, including learning how to breathe on his own and eat with the help of numerous CHOC specialists. The Smiths were overjoyed when they were finally able to take their newborn home.

Ryan remained under the care of the CHOC Children’s Heart Institute. He and his parents consider his CHOC team part of their extended family.

His mom Cathy says, “The care Ryan has received by the team at CHOC has been extraordinary. They have taken every step to make sure he’s been given the best care clinically, as well as making him feel a part of a great organizational family.”

Children born with TGA require periodic visits with their cardiologists, who check for heart-related problems, including fast, slow or irregular heart rhythms, leaky heart valves, narrowing of one or both of the great arteries at the switch connection site(s) and narrowing of the coronary arteries at their switch connection site.

Shortly after his first birthday, Ryan had his second open-heart surgery; this time to extend and strengthen his pulmonary artery. Additionally, he has undergone a few interventional procedures in CHOC’s cardiac catheterization lab. Most recently, he became part of a small number of patients – second at CHOC – to receive the world’s smallest pacemaker, the Micra® Transcatheter Pacing System (TPS), to help treat his irregular heart rhythm.

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About the size of a vitamin, the Micra TPS provides the most advanced pacing technology at one-tenth the size of a traditional pacemaker. And, unlike traditional pacemakers, it does not require cardiac leads or a surgical “pocket” under the skin to deliver the pacing therapy. The device is small enough to be delivered through a catheter and implanted directly into the heart. This offers patients a safe alternative to conventional pacemakers without the complications associated with leads – all while being cosmetically invisible.

For Ryan, a high school athlete, and his parents, the Micra TPS gave them all peace of mind and comfort in knowing Ryan is receiving the necessary therapy while still pursuing his passion:  running. He competes on his school’s cross country and track teams. When he’s not running, he enjoys watching races.

In addition to sports, Ryan excels academically and enjoys an active social life. His classmates consider him a leader and positive role model.

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“The thing that makes me most proud of my son is that he lives his life like any other teenager. Nothing is holding him back. He is a testament that no matter what hurdles life may put in front of you, anyone can achieve anything they put their mind and heart into,” shares Ryan’s dad Jim.

Ryan encourages other CHOC patients to pursue their dreams. “You should live your life how you want, as long as you stay within the parameters of your condition,” he explains. “And trust the people at CHOC because they know what they’re doing.”

After high school, Ryan plans on attending college, and, of course, continuing to run.

Learn more about the Heart Institute at CHOC Children's

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Tetralogy of Fallot Patient and his Family Give Back

What was supposed to be a routine visit with their pediatrician on a seemingly typical Friday morning changed Stephanie Harding and her son Trent’s life forever when their day ended with a diagnosis of Tetralogy of Fallot.

As the pediatrician wrapped up his checkup that morning, he noticed 5-week old Trent’s forehead appeared somewhat purple. He tested his oxygen saturation to find the baby’s oxygen level was low and would need to be seen by a cardiologist immediately for further examination.

A few hours later, the cardiologist determined that Trent had Tetralogy of Fallot, a heart condition made up of four related congenital defects that occur due to abnormal development of the fetal heart. Those three words were as foreign and shocking to Stephanie as the turn of events that day.

“I remember thinking we had only packed enough food and supplies for the baby for a trip to the pediatrician and back. Here we were now, at a hospital, hearing the cardiologist explain what his condition involved and everything else went blank. All I could hear is that Trent had four heart defects that needed to be repaired immediately,” Stephanie says. “We asked for prayer right away; we were in disbelief.”

A few days later, Trent had open heart surgery at Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital to repair the four heart defects.

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Trent recovering after his first surgery, just days after being diagnosed with Tetralogy of Fallot.

“He’s our miracle baby,” Stephanie says. “It’s a miracle that we caught his condition in time. There had been no signs or symptoms before that appointment with his pediatrician.”

In 2017, Trent, then 6 years old, underwent a second surgery, as is typical for a child with Tetralogy of Fallot, to replace the pulmonary valve with Dr. Richard Gates, a pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon and co-medical director of the CHOC Children’s Heart Institute. Stephanie and her husband, Tim, remember having to explain as best they could to their little boy what was about to happen to him once again.

“Trent is quiet and goes with the flow, yet I didn’t know how he would take it. He was so brave through it all,” Stephanie says. “I still remember as he was being wheeled into the operating room and I finally had to let go of his hand so he could go in; he looked up from the gurney and looked at me, with the anesthesia just starting to kick in, and I thought he was surely going to start crying or screaming. Instead, he just gave me this confident look like, ‘I’ve got this Mom, it’s going to be OK,’” an emotional Stephanie recalls.

The surgery was successful, and the Hardings couldn’t be more thankful with the remarkable care and compassion Trent received from CHOC staff, many of whom they keep in touch with today.

Stephanie and Trent occasionally stop by the cardiovascular intensive care unit (CVICU) at CHOC to say hello to the nurses and doctors who took care of them, and drop off gifts for other families going through what they’ve experienced. Stephanie had provided goodies to the hospital, including the CVICU, long before her son was treated at CHOC. Now, giving back to the CVICU means more than ever.

“It feels great to let another parent know they’re not alone, and that there are resources and groups out there that will support them,” Stephanie says.

Trent, now 7, puts it simply. It makes him so happy, he says, to be able to give back to other kids like him.

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The Harding family’s passion to help others doesn’t stop at CHOC. They are very active locally, raising awareness and funds for the congenital heart defect (CHD) community, through groups like Hopeful Hearts Foundation, an organization for families with children affected by CHD.

On Feb.  23, the Hardings are hosting a fundraiser at GritCycle, an indoor cycling gym, with the proceeds benefitting CHOC. Participants can buy a ticket to cycle at the Monarch Beach location.

Trent will need another surgery to replace his pulmonary valve in about five years. For now, he is an active first-grader who enjoys math and jiu-jitsu. He also loves hanging out with his family, including his brothers, Stephan and Dylan, who are very supportive of their ‘miracle baby.’

Learn more about the Heart Institute at CHOC Children's

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Catching a Heart Defect in Utero: Marco’s Story

Meagan and Dante Cipulli quickly settled on a name when they discovered their third baby would be a boy: Marco, which means God of War.

That name would become especially fitting a few weeks later. When Meagan was about six months pregnant, the couple learned their baby had a congenital heart defect called Tetralogy of Fallot and would need open-heart surgery soon after birth.

“Knowing my unborn baby would need open-heart surgery after birth was the scariest experience of my life,” Meagan says. “After receiving his diagnosis, we realized we couldn’t have picked a better name for our little heart warrior.”

Finding heart defects before birth

When a second ultrasound by a perinatologist confirmed that baby Marco’s aorta was enlarged, Meagan was referred to CHOC Children’s pediatric cardiologist Dr. Nita Doshi.

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Dr. Doshi performed a fetal echocardiogram, which uses sound waves to create a picture of an unborn baby’s heart.

The evaluation confirmed that Marco had Tetralogy of Fallot, a heart condition comprised of four related defects that cause inadequate amounts of blood to reach the lungs for oxygen, then sending oxygen-deficient blood throughout the body.

“I was in complete shock,” Meagan says. “As a nurse, I knew exactly what Tetralogy of Fallot was and that he would need open-heart surgery.”

Planning began immediately. With the help of Dr. Doshi, the Cipullis began researching hospitals, cardiologists and surgeons who could care for Marco when the time came.

CHOC emerged as the clear choice, and the Cipullis opted for Dr. Doshi to continue as Marco’s cardiologist and Dr. Richard Gates, director of cardiothoracic surgery as well as CHOC’s surgeon-in-chief, to perform the corrective surgery.

Organizing pre-, post-birth care

Meagan moved her obstetric care to a physician aligned with St. Joseph Hospital so that when Marco was born, he could be immediately transferred next door to CHOC’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

During a perinatal conference, the Cipullis met with the obstetrical team at St. Joseph and CHOC’s neonatal team to discuss Marco’s birth and care.

“That conference allowed me to have all my questions answered. It gave me peace of mind that all those related to our care were on the same page,” Meagan said. “I knew that I had made the right choice after meeting with the care team.”

The remaining weeks of Meagan’s pregnancy were an emotional roller coaster. The couple prepared their older sons as best they could for what was to come with their younger brother.

Not understanding the full extent of their baby’s medical needs, the Cipullis’ were terrified. However, they felt at ease knowing a plan was in place.

“Each day of my pregnancy after diagnosis was filled with worry and fear. But they were also filled with gratitude and hope knowing we were fortunate enough to have Marco’s diagnosis in utero and were able to plan for his care after birth,” Meagan says.

The Cipullis didn’t have to wait long for Marco. On May 16, 2017, Marco was born five weeks ahead of schedule. After a brief rest on his mother’s chest, Marco was moved to CHOC’s NICU, where he stayed for the next five days before going home.

Surgery day

Marco was back at CHOC about three months later for surgery with Dr. Gates to repair his heart defects.

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“At first it all seemed so surreal and somehow I was able to keep it all together until the moment they wheeled Marco into the operating room,” Meagan says. “While he was lying in the crib, he looked over his shoulder and gave me and his dad this smile and look like, ‘I got this, guys, don’t worry.’ I don’t think I have ever cried harder in my life.”

The surgery went well, and Marco spent five days recovering in CHOC’s cardiovascular intensive care unit.

Today, Marco is a happy and healthy 9-month-old who loves to smile and laugh. He sees Dr. Doshi every four months for follow-up appointments, but otherwise requires no additional medication or therapy.

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Many babies with Tetralogy of Fallot will require additional surgeries as they age. The Cipullis however are hopeful that Marco’s early interventional measures will last for many years.

Feeling positive

Meantime, the Cipullis are enjoying every minute with their three boys. They are grateful for the care they received at CHOC after catching Marco’s condition early.

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Meagan recommends that other families who find themselves in similar situations be vocal about their fears, but also stay positive about their baby’s future.

“My husband and I each night would talk about what we were feeling that day,” she recalls. “At first, it was more about our fears and worries, but eventually each day we would talk more about our excitement and joy to meet our little warrior.”

Learn more about the Heart Institute at CHOC Children's

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5-year-old Rayaan fights through battle with brain, spinal cord inflammation

By Hina, mother of CHOC Children’s patient Rayaan

When Rayaan was 16 months old, he caught a simple cold. He had a typical low-grade fever and slept more than normal. I figured he needed the rest and would feel better the next day. The next morning, he was having a difficult time waking up so I thought I should take him to his pediatrician. She recognized something was very wrong and described him as being “unresponsive.” He was immediately transported to CHOC Children’s via ambulance. CHOC’s emergency department team was waiting for our ambulance and ready to care for Rayaan as soon as we arrived. They quickly assessed him and then placed him on a ventilator as he was brought up to the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU).

His care team ordered an MRI of his brain and diagnosed him with Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis, also known as ADEM. This means there was widespread inflammation in his brain and spinal cord that damages the myelin, which is a protective covering for nerve fibers. ADEM had affected over two thirds of his brain. We didn’t know it yet, but we would be at CHOC for the long haul.

Over the course of the next six weeks, Rayaan received multiple types of treatment for ADEM. His care team was vast, and included many different specialties: Dr. Nguyen Pham, a pediatric otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist or ENT), Dr. Gregory Wong, a pediatric gastroenterologist, Dr. Sharief Taraman, a pediatric neurologist, in addition to infectious disease specialists, in-patient physical and occupational therapists, a respiratory therapist, and the feeding team. He was in a coma and on life support for three weeks. During this time, his doctors kept a very close eye not only on him, but also on our entire family. Dr. Nick Anas, CHOC’s physician-in-chief; Dr. Jason Knight, medical director of emergency transport services; Dr. Paul Lubinsky, associate PICU director; and critical care specialists Dr. Juliette Hunt, Dr. Anthony Cherin and all of our nurses became family to us. I remember when Dr. Anas came to check up on Rayaan and he asked me when was the last time I layed next to Rayaan, I replied it’s been a while, and he ordered the PICU staff to transfer Rayaan from a crib to a full-size bed immediately, so I could lay next to my son. Rayaan was connected to every machine and monitor you can imagine, but his doctor was keeping my feelings in mind.

During this extremely difficult time when we were waiting for him to wake up, we were fortunate to have a wonderful support system. The Ronald McDonald Family Room let us escape for a few minutes, occaisionaly breakfast and lunch was provided by generous donors, and my daughter who was only three years old at the time was taken care of by child life specialists, while a social worker and case manager were assigned to us to provide us with counseling. This period was the hardest thing we had ever dealt with in our lives.

After three weeks of being in a coma, Rayaan began showing signs of waking up. He began by slightly moving his hands and arms. A few days later, we noticed his eye partially open. It would take him almost two weeks to be fully awake.  Although he had woken up from his coma, his journey was just beginning. The inflammation in his brain caused severe brain trauma and he lost his speech, and his ability to walk, eat, swallow and drink. While he was still in the hospital, a feeding tube was placed, as his oral muscles were to weak to swallow and chew. After his discharge, the rehabilitation team came in to ensure he would relearn the basics. Nicole Well, a speech language pathologist at CHOC, taught my son how to talk again. A feeding therapist named Polly provided electrical stimulation feeding therapy to make his muscles strong enough again to be able to eat, drink and swallow on his own.

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Four years after his health scare, Rayaan is in Transitional Kindergarten and still undergoes multiple therapies in the effort to make a full recovery from his illness.

Rayaan endured several surgeries and procedures during his hospitalization, and even more after his discharge and as well as multiple visits to the emergency department at CHOC. The CHOC specialists always worked so hard on Rayaan as if he were their own child. I am very grateful to CHOC for saving his life and I know that the comprehensive care we received at CHOC we wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere else.

Today, four years later, Rayaan is in Transitional Kindergarten and still undergoes multiple therapies in the effort to make a full recovery from his illness. He remains under the care of CHOC specialists. I am inspired every day by his strength and his courage to overcome so much at such a young age. Above all, our family is grateful for CHOC, who has provided him with the comprehensive medical care throughout his journey.

Learn more about the pediatric intensive care unit at CHOC

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Innovation Comes Home

Five-year-old Emma has hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS) and has undergone three open-heart surgeries since first coming to CHOC Children’s― the only Orange County hospital providing pediatric open-heart surgery― at just 2 days old. After the last surgery, she went home with an advanced, wireless monitoring device provided by the CHOC Cardiopulmonary Health Intelligence Program (CHiP). This lightweight tablet monitors Emma’s blood pressure and other vital signs, instantly transmitting the data to her care team at CHOC who can incorporate it into her electronic medical record as needed. The tablet also offers her parents extra peace of mind and direct access to Emma’s team of specialists at CHOC.

Emma and her family have participated in CHOC Walk in the Park to give back to the hospital that has cared for her since birth.

Videoconferencing for “virtual visits” mean CHOC doctors, nurses and other members of her care team are always close by. It’s part of a larger pilot program that integrates several emerging health technologies to provide even more highly personalized care.

HLHS is a type of heart defect that occurs when the left side of the heart does not form properly during pregnancy. In patients with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, most of the structures on the left side of the heart are small and underdeveloped. The degree of underdevelopment differs from child to child. Perhaps the most critical defect in HLHS is the small, underdeveloped left ventricle. This chamber is normally very strong and muscular so it can pump blood to the body. When the chamber is small and poorly developed, it will not function effectively and can’t provide enough blood flow to meet the body’s needs. For this reason, an infant with HLHS will not live long without surgical intervention.

Mid-way through taking a walk in the CVICU, Emma takes a break to dance with surprise visitor Mickey Mouse.

Babies born with this condition must begin the first of three open-heart surgical procedures within days of birth. Emma underwent her first surgery when she was 6 days old and had her third surgery almost four years later. After each surgery, her parents Patrice and Kevin saw noticeable improvement in her energy, mobility and quality of life.

During one stay in CHOC’s cardiovascular intensive care unit (CVICU), Emma and her family dressed up as superheroes and paraded throughout the unit.

But children like Emma need frequent office visits to monitor heart function, medication and symptoms. Over the past five years, her parents have made countless trips to CHOC, sometimes as often as every day. At home, they’ve meticulously tracked their daughter’s medications, blood pressure and overall health with pen and paper.

That changed last year thanks to a five-year CHOC pilot program designed to provide more personalized treatment for kids with heart failure. Emma’s parents now check her vital signs instantly at home with the same clinical accuracy as an office visit. With the Integrated Medical Tablet provided by the CHOC Cardiopulmonary Health Intelligence Program (CHiP), Emma’s doctors, nurses and care team are only a touch screen away.

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Thanks to a five-year CHOC pilot program designed to provide more personalized treatment for kids with heart failure, Emma’s parents now check her vital signs instantly at home with the same clinical accuracy as an office visit.

“After her last open-heart surgery, Emma was still healing at home when we began testing out this machine,” Patrice said. “It gave us such peace of mind as we were still closely looking at her oxygen saturation and blood pressure. We didn’t have to go into the office every day to get this information—it could be recorded and sent to her specialists from the comfort of our own home.”

Instant Communication 

Surgery may be behind her, but Emma continues taking medications that require constant monitoring and adjustment. The tablet has built-in alerts to notify her doctor if the results are outside the range of the personal limits that have been set for her.

And if something doesn’t look quite right, Patrice and Kevin don’t have to drive Emma over to CHOC. They can take photos and videos with the tablet and send them directly to Emma’s care team.

Although Emma and her family love visiting with her care team, they are happy this at-home monitoring has resulted in less frequent trips to CHOC.

“Emma is on a diuretic for her heart condition, so being able to show her doctors if she is swollen or puffy is helpful,” Patrice said. “We are also able to type up our notes and questions for her doctors.”

Videoconferencing capabilities allow “virtual visits,” including wellness checks and parent education, at any time with the CHOC cardiopulmonary team. Beginning in 2018, CHiP will expand services to patients with other types of heart conditions.

“Patients and families feel much more comfortable outside of the clinical setting, but when they’re not in the hospital, they feel very nervous about the health of their child. They have much more peace of mind knowing that their child has quick access to CHOC from home,” explains Dr. Anthony Chang, CHOC’s Chief Intelligence and Innovation Officer, “We’re proud to offer a clinical environment to test and evaluate new technologies such as artificial intelligence and remote monitoring solutions.”

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Dr. Anthony Chang, Emma’s pediatric cardiologist, and CHOC’s chief intelligence and innovation officer

Far More Than a “Fancy Gadget”

Remote monitoring, video conferencing and wireless access to a patient’s electronic medical record are exciting advancements in care for children with heart failure. In this pilot study, however, CHOC is exploring the additional benefits that may come from leveraging these capabilities with other emerging health technology.

One of those technologies is precision medicine, a treatment approach that incorporates the patient’s genetics, environment and lifestyle. Another is pharmacogenomics, which evaluates how genetics may impact a patient’s individual response to a particular medication.

As a pediatric cardiologist within the CHOC Children’s Heart Institute, Dr. Chang is interested in how these technologies, combined with data analytics and artificial intelligence, may further personalize treatment and improve outcomes.

“Our goal is to use all available technologies and provide the most advanced, innovative care that is best suited for the individual patient,” Dr. Chang said. “CHOC is taking a national role among children’s hospitals to develop a model that may ultimately be used by other pediatric specialties for better management of complex patients.”

Learn more about the Heart Institute at CHOC Children's

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