Pediatric surgeons treat adult conditions

Seven's On Call with Dr. Jay Adlersberg
November 7, 2008 2:59:08 PM PST
You might think a pediatric surgeon focuses on kids. But it some cases, that's exactly who you want operating on adults.They are adults who have congenital heart problems, defects in the heart present at birth. The most recent issue of the heart journal Circulation says that for these adults, it's the pediatric heart surgeon, not the adult heart surgeon, who is best at saving patients' lives.

Thirty-four-year-old Amy Hebert no longer looks like the blue baby she was born as, thanks to surgeons like Dr. Jonathan Chen. Amy was born with multiple heart problems, congenital heart problems that in adulthood lead to shortness of breath and heart failure.

"I have only three chambers of my heart and most people have four," she said. "And the main arteries, the pulmonary arteries and the other one are crisscrossed."

Amy has had many heart surgeries. Dr. Chen recently operated to place an artificial valve in her heart. He is not an adult heart surgeon. He's a pediatric, or so-called congenital heart surgeon.

A new study confirms that adults with congenital heart defects operated by pediatric heart surgeons have fewer post-op deaths than those operated by adult heart surgeons.

Dr. Chen says it's not just the scrambled anatomy inside a deformed heart. It's how the body adjusts between childhood and adulthood.

"Over decades of life, that adjustment of your body can change things substantially," Dr. Chen said. "Being prepared for those changes is essential."

And Dr. Chen feels that congenital heart surgeons are better prepared to understand these changes over time.

"Often, patients with congenital heart problems aren't aware they have them until they're adults," he said.

And Amy found that it was the pediatric cardiologists and pediatric heart surgeons who recognized her problems immediately. When pregnancy worsened her heart function, Dr. Chen repaired it, despite its altered shape and function.

"He saved my life, so I could live and see my daughter," she said.

Dr. Chen emphasized that success in the operating room depends not just on the awareness of the pediatric surgeon, but on the anesthesiologist, nurses and other staff members who are familiar with congenital heart problems and their consequences.

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STORY BY: Medical reporter Dr. Jay Adlersberg

WEB PRODUCED BY: Bill King

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