Monday, August 15, 2011

Every Heart Has a Story: Pulmonary Hypertension

My first time in the cramped, dark office, I was eight months pregnant, listening to him explain truncus arteriosus, the congenital heart defect they thought my unborn baby had, and the surgery she would undergo to help her survive.

My second time in the office, I was in a wheel chair, having recently given birth. My baby, the Dancing Queen, had just had her first heart catheterization at one day old and he explained to us the heart defects she actually had (tetralogy of fallot with pulmonary atresia) and the surgery she would need at three days old.

My third time in the cramped office, he was letting us know that he had no answers. He did not know why DQ was not getting better, why she was still so sick several weeks after surgery. He explained that he may have to go in and replace the shunt he had placed, even though he'd never done it before. He had no answers . . .

So, a year later, when I entered his office for a fourth time, with my one-year-old on my hip, I was understandably shaken. I sat on the worn couch, looking out the window, hoping not to cry. Today, I can't remember if I did cry or not, but what I do remember is his answer to my question of whether DQ would have more energy, eat better, be more like an average kid after her surgery. His response was "no". He said she was already a pretty active child and likely wouldn't have the 180 turnaround that so many other parents saw with their children. I chose not to believe him. I wish I would have.
DQ a week before her surgery in 2009.
In April 2009, a 13 month old Dancing Queen underwent her "full-repair" (patched the huge hole between her two ventricles, shaved her stiff and thick tricuspid valve, widened the pulmonary arteries, and patched the aorta so it didn't open above the outflow and the inflow of the heart), but the surgeon merely called it a tune-up. If only I had heard that statement for what it really meant. I assumed the doc called it a tune-up because the homograft they used to connect her heart to her pulmonary arteries would need to be replaced, not that she would need any other type of surgery. And even after DQ was in the hospital for 3 weeks post op, was on a ventilator for a week, and had to be re-intubated after the vent was first taken off, I still thought she was going to be amazingly better after her repair. I held an amazing optimism.
DQ immediately post-op April 2009
Instead, after getting home, DQ remained fairly weak and actually got worse. She spent a lot of time that summer in the hospital, sick. Finally, in August, it was determined that DQ had pulmonary hypertension (elevated pressure in the pulmonary arteries, which was causing her heart to work extra hard, damaging it, and causing damage to her already small pulmonary arteries). I didn't know much about PH at that time, so I googled it. That was a bad idea. (Much of the data on the general web about PH gives grim prognoses--less than 2 years to live after onset.)  After reading a couple of pages, I stopped, too scared to even think of the possibility. I held onto the one positive nugget I found: if the underlying cause can be corrected, PH can go away. I figured the docs would determine why her CHDs were now causing PH. DQ's cardiologist had mentioned that DQ's right pulmonary artery had pinched down following surgery and that could possibly cause the elevated pressures. She did indicate that would be highly unusual, but I ignored the doubt and hung on to only positive possibilities.
DQ learned to stand in a hospital bed in June 2009 at 16 months old.
In July 2009, DQ perfected standing in a hospital bed.
In September, DQ had her fifth heart catheterization and the doctor ballooned and stented her right pulmonary artery where it had been pinched. It was believed at the time that the simple stent had reduced DQ's pulmonary pressures. We were told for the first time after that cath that DQ had moderate pulmonary vascular disease. Her pulmonary arteries are like a tree without leaves rather than a tree with leaves as they should be. We were told the stent, with the increased blood flow, should help those PAs grow along with lowering the pulmonary pressures.

A follow up echocardiogram confirmed the lower pressures. I was ecstatic at the numbers. I held on to those beautiful numbers, waiting for the miraculous turnaround. But all that I saw was DQ not doing well. She continued to do worse. I kept having to call the cardiologist because DQ was swollen. We kept having to up her diruectics when the numbers said there was no need for the medicines. Yet, I still let myself believe the positive.

In December 2009, DQ saw the ENT because she kept getting ear infections. The ENT wanted to place tubes, but needed cardiac clearance for the anesthesia. It was at that appointment that we learned DQ still had pulmonary hypertension (the previous echo had been wrong). It was at that point that I could no longer hide behind the positive.

DQ's cardiologist explained that DQ's PH was likely caused by the pulmonary vascular disease (hypoplastic distal pulmonary arteries) and, accordingly, could not be treated through any means currently known to science. She suggested we see DQ's pulmonologist, but left us with a grim reality.

The next week, DQ and I waited two hours to see the pulmonologist. When he finally came in, he listened to my story, and said he had nothing. He ordered DQ to be placed on oxygen at night to help her lungs get a break, but he gave me no other hope. When I asked him the prognosis, his response was "you already know how bad this is. I have nothing more to offer you." Needless to say, our holidays were not that great in 2009. We grieved a lot and spent a ton of time together as a family, loving our very sick little girl.
This picture was taken the day after meeting with the pulmonologist. Ma tried to help distract us with cookies! Or was she just trying to soak up as much of DQ as she could? I think it was both.
While the holidays had a very grim shadow, we did still have some fun.
When I wasn't spending time with DQ, I was making calls. I was searching the internet. I was posting requests. I did everything in my power to find every pediatric PH specialist in the country. I contacted them all. Almost all of them responded to me with a fairly uniform answer: "PH caused by pulmonary vascular disease cannot be treated."

By the end of January 2010, I was desperate. I left messages for DQ's cardiologist, but the messages never seemed to get through. So, I finally sent a fax to DQ's cardiologist with a huge list of questions. Within an hour, she called me back. An hour later, DQ had a cath set up for the next week. The local docs were no longer going to give up on my girl and I wasn't about to stop trying to save her.

At the beginning of February, she had her 6th heart catheterization. The docs learned that DQ's lungs responded to nitrogen, so they started her on revatio (a.k.a. sildenafil, a.k.a. viagra). But, she developed pneumonia and stayed hospitalized for 10 days. Upon discharge, we weren't given any promises and were told good luck.
DQ in the hospital after that February cath and pneumonia. Here, she is watching "Cars" or "Baby Signing Time", her favorite videos then and now.
Through the next several months, I continued to search for another answer, as we grew more and more tired from having to give Revatio three times a day, meaning staying up until 11:00pm every single night to give the final dose of the day. And yet, each time DQ went to the cardiologist, nothing would change.

Finally, in April or May, as I stood by DQ's hospital bed (respiratory virus), my cell phone began to ring. It was a PH specialist from California. He was the first doctor who did not dismiss DQ's case as hopeless. He offered to see her.We just had to get her healthy, keep her healthy, and find a time to travel.

We waited and waited and finally, DQ went to see the PH specialist the end of July 2010. She had a cardiac MRI and examination. After it was all said and done, the PH specialist stated that DQ's pressures were likely originating from her heart because of her valveless conduit and a pseudo-aneurism in her conduit (things we knew about for over a year). He also explained that it was typical for someone with DQ's mix of CHDs to start declining without real explanation or solution, but just not usually as quickly as she had. Usually, the decline starts in the teenage years. He suggested that DQ's best possibility was replacing the conduit with a valved one. He didn't think that would solve everything and may not work at all, but it was the only idea. He pushed to have the surgery completed within a month so hopefully DQ's damaged heart could start to heal.
Just arrived at our hotel after a long flight.
Enjoying an ocean view.
My sweet girl, chillin after a long day at the ocean, following two very long days at the hospital.
Upon our return, I spoke with DQ's primary cardiologist.  She didn't think surgery was going to help DQ either, but didn't think it would hurt. She had no other ideas and left it up to us, saying she would support either choice. We opted to talk with DQ's surgeon, but he was on vacation.  So, we spent August on pins and needles, not knowing what to do.  Should we put our child through another open heart surgery? If we do it, will the local surgeons agree with it? Should we have the local surgeons operate if they agree, but don't believe it is necessary? Should we have the surgery done in California, so far from home with doctors and nurses we don't know and don't know DQ? There were so many unknowns and one sick little girl.

Finally, the surgeon talked with DQ's primary cardiologist and indicated that he thought DQ should have surgery. He would do it and he would put DQ on his calendar, but first we had to come down to his office, that same cramped room with the same worn brown couch, for an examination.

And so, I entered that cramped office once again in late summer 2010, still not knowing whether the surgeon agreed to the surgery because we were going to do it anyway or if he believed it was the best option. I wasn't going to hand my baby over to anyone who didn't believe in what they were doing, even if I had trusted them over and over before. Fortunately, we left knowing that everyone was in agreement.

On Monday, September 20, 2010, I handed my sweet toddler over to the surgeons once again. She left me, drugged out on versed, thinking her pacifier was a riot around 7:40 am. Seriously, she was waving it in front of her face, giggling. Around 9:45am, we were told the surgery was starting. It takes a good two hours to get all of the lines in and anesthesia properly complete. It took over an hour to get through DQ's sternum because of all of the scar tissue she had from open her chest multiple times. She went on the heart-lung bypass machine around 12:30 pm and came off around 4:00pm. At 7:00pm, they came to get us so we could watch our girl on her way from the OR up to the PICU. I gave her one more kiss.
Playing in pre-op.
Giggling at her pacifier, doped up on tons of versed.
It took 11 hours in the OR to make our miracle happen. What wasn't evident from images produced by numerous echocardiograms, heart catherterizations, and an MRI was that DQ's tricuspid valve had a huge hole between two of the leaflets, her PFO remained open (small hole to upper chambers of the heart), and the stent that had been placed in the right pulmonary artery the year before, was blocking blood flow to the left lung. On that Monday, my favorite surgeon fixed all of those things and he replaced DQ's right ventricle to pulmonary artery conduit with a valved, porcine (pig) conduit.
DQ immediately post-op, September 2010.
My baby was able to come off of the ventilator the very next day! She was home by that Saturday. She was miraculously better! So much better than anyone had hoped.
A couple days post-op, looking ready to go home.
Exactly one week post-op, home and doing well.
Eleven months later, DQ's pulmonary pressures have decreased. They are still higher than normal, but no longer dangerous. She is still dependent upon a lot of medications that the docs wouldn't expect, but since they help her, we continue their use. DQ's last echo was a couple of weeks ago and her heart has continued to get smaller (a very good thing) and the leak in her tricuspid valve is almost non-existent. These are all signs that surgery was a success and my push to find answers so worth it. My baby's heart is the best it ever has been and will be.

The surgeon did explain that there is nothing he can do for her distal pulmonary arteries though. That he cannot make them branch and grow. And unlike most cases, DQ cannot have more stents inserted into her main pulmonary arteries to make them bigger so that the distal arteries can grow. Placing any stents will only cut off blood flow to the other parts of DQ's lungs because of their odd placement.

So, we hope with time and better health that DQ's pulmonary arteries will grow on their own. But we were warned that if they don't grow more than proportionately, we will be in the same place again, but without anything to fix. At some point, without extra growth, DQ's pulmonary arteries will no longer be able to sustain her and the pressures will increase again because her heart will start working harder to try to force blood to the lungs to get oxygenated better. And at some point, she will be desperately sick again. I'm holding out hope for new technologies and medications.

Practically speaking though, I am enjoying my time with my beautiful daughter, soaking her up. Trying not to let her precarious future take away from her love of life.
Dancing Queen in August 2011.

The Dancing Queen's story from conception and my post from last year's Every Heart Has a Story can be found on the navigation bar at "Dancing Queen" and a fuller description of her heart defects is on the navigation bar at "I'm a Heart Mom". I also maintain a carepage for DQ that is just about her health and specifically her story. If you want to know more or want to follow DQ, send me an email at momonaline (at) gmail (dot) com.

Finally, if you haven't stopped by Stefenie's blog and read the other heart stories posted there, please do so. Or, if you are a CHDer or a family member of a CHDer, write up your heart story, and link-up with the rest of us.


  1. I remember it all. What I can't remember is how we "met" or what drew me to the Dancing Queen and kept me there. So much has gone on in her young life but that spunky spirit and love of life has to be playing a big role in her improvement. That and a mother that will never give up.


  2. Wow! I know your story very well but hearing this all again definitely made me tear up.

    Thanks for participating in my blog linking event!

  3. I just stopped by from Stefenie's...what an amazing story you have! You are more proof that mothers are the best advocated their children can have. I hope for all of you that new technology will happen that will help DQ in the future. Thanks for sharing your story.

  4. First of all...DQ is so darn cute I can hardly stand it!

    Second of all, you are an amazing advocate for your sweet girl. There's proof of a mother's love and never giving up on her child if I ever saw any! You all have quite the story, and I can't wait to watch it (or I guess read it) unfold! I'll be following along from here on out. Nice to "meet" you! ;)

  5. Very amazing story! Thanks for sharing, strong mama!

  6. Such an amazing story. You are such a wonderful mother to have pushed the doctors so hard to get you the answers you needed to help DQ (LOVE her name!). Best wishes for you all. Thanks for sharing your story.


  7. Your story is amazing--thank you for sharing it with us. I'm sorry that you've had to deal with so much. I hope she does well for a very long time. *heart hugs*

  8. Sometimes I have to remind myself: I don't know what will happen....but I know it won't happen today.
    You've been through so much and it's incredible how you kept fighting instead of accepting what everyone was telling you. I'm glad she's doing well.


Having a child with a CHD is like being given an extra sense---the true ability to appreciate life. Each breath, each hug, each meal is a blessing when you've watched your child live off a ventilator, trapped in an ICU bed, being fed through a tube. Each minute is a miracle when you've watched your child almost die and come back to you.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...