Expertise, Passion Fuel Pediatric Heart Center
Born last year on Sept. 5, Abbey Beers pinked right up like a normal baby. But 24 hours later, as her parents Mike and Katie Beers were preparing to take her home, medical personnel detected a heart murmur.
A subsequent echocardiogram brought dire news: Abbey was born with a defective heart. She would need open-heart surgery soon – in a matter of days – or she would die.
"We felt like we'd been punched in the face," recalls Katie Beers. Abbey was immediately admitted to the UC Davis Children's Hospital – inland Northern California's only full-service Pediatric Heart Center – to correct a congenital heart defect called hypoplastic left heart syndrome.
The center recently broadened its capabilities to include a highly specialized three-step surgical process, called the Norwood procedure, used to treat Abbey's defect. Before UC Davis began offering this surgery, the only other locations for Northern California families were in the Bay Area.
Since mending these tiny hearts requires an initial hospital stay of several weeks and return visits for follow-up care, having a hospital nearby was a godsend for the Beers, who live in the Sacramento area.
"I don't know how our lives would have been able to go on if she'd been two-and-a-half hours away in the Bay area or if we would have had to move there temporarily," says Katie Beers. "To say it was vital that we've been able to do this at UC Davis is probably an understatement."
Team of experts
The Beers have pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon Gary Raff and a team of physicians, nurses and technicians with expertise in pediatric echocardiography, cardiology, pediatric critical care medicine and pediatric anesthesia to thank for the proximity of a medical facility that can now handle all types of heart surgeries on children.
"Families with infants with complex congenital heart defects are under a lot of stress and pressure," Raff says. "It's better for infants and for families to have friends and loved ones close at hand during such a challenging time in their lives."
While Raff has honed the skillful precision required to perform complex surgeries on some of the tiniest and most fragile patients who suffer from birth defects like Abbey's, his work is dependent on a team of health-care providers who each have a critical role to play.
"The only way to take good care of children with complex heart problems is to have a group of specialists working together as a team," explains Raff. "Surgery is a critical component but it takes the entire team to enable children like Abbey to grow up healthy."
Raff came to UC Davis in 2002 from Children's Hospital of Philadelphia to be part of the launch and expansion of UC Davis' Pediatric Heart Center.
"I recognized that I could make a huge impact here," Raff says. "I've always wanted to build and grow a program, and it's exciting to be in a region with a growing pediatric population."
Raff's recent addition of the Norwood procedure to the center's capabilities gives the Sacramento region the only pediatric program to offer a comprehensive range of diagnostic, therapeutic and surgical procedures for infants, children and adolescents with congenital as well as acquired heart defects, rivaling similar programs in the Bay area.
The Norwood procedure is actually the initial operation of a three-step process. The operation fixes a defect in the left side of the heart that prevents it from doing what it is supposed to do – sending oxygen-rich blood from the lungs to the rest of the body. It accounts for less than 10 percent of all congenital heart defects.
In the first surgery, which Abbey underwent when she was just a week old, Raff reconfigured her heart so that the right side could do the work of the left. In the second, when she was five months old, Raff eased the workload on the right side of her heart by redirecting blood flow. A third surgery, which will complete the repair of the left side of her heart, will take place when Abbey is 2 to 3 years old.
Raff sees the center continuing to grow as the demand for these highly delicate and specialized procedures grows. That growth includes adding another surgeon with a strong background in basic scientific research to the team.
Focus on research
"We are particularly interested in exploring stem cell therapies, such as growing new vessels and, perhaps one day, being able to grow other parts of the heart," Raff says.
A breakthrough such as that, which Raff firmly believes will occur in his lifetime, would render the Norwood procedure obsolete. In the meantime, Raff will continue to repair the tiniest hearts. It certainly means a lot to the Beers. "We don't feel comfortable with anyone else putting their hands on our baby's heart," Katie Beers said.