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What families should know about congenital heart defects
February 22, 2023
Closeup of baby's hands holding heart toy

    One of the most exciting milestones for expecting parents is seeing or hearing the beating of their baby’s heart in utero. This usually occurs during an initial obstetrical screening ultrasound at six weeks gestation. This initial ultrasound won’t be the last. Your obstetrician will closely monitor your baby’s development, especially their heart throughout pregnancy.

    What are congenital heart defects?

    This attention to your baby’s heart is because congenital heart defects, or problems with the structure or development of the heart, are the most common type of birth defect across the world. They impact one in every 100 babies in the U.S. – or about 800 babies in Virginia each year. The good news is there is state of the art care available for congenital cardiac disorders right here in Richmond through a unique collaboration between CHoR and UVA Children’s.

    “A heart defect isn’t something any parent plans for, but the collaboration allows us to accurately diagnose the vast majority of these defects in utero, affording the parents and the care team the opportunity to make the best and safest decisions on a number of issues,” said Dr. Chris Snyder, chief of pediatric cardiology. “This early diagnosis will help answer many questions. Where should baby be delivered? Will the baby need extra support? Will the cardiac team need to provide emergent care or surgery? All of these decisions can be made weeks to months prior to delivery, assuring safety for the mother and baby, and giving that child the best opportunity to grow into a healthy, happy adult.”

    How are congenital heart defects diagnosed?

    Diagnosing a congenital heart defect before a baby is born is done through advanced ultrasound imaging with a fetal cardiologist. This test, which uses sound waves, is harmless to both mother and baby, and readily available.

    Sometimes, heart defects aren’t identified until symptoms appear later. In babies, this may be an abnormal noise or murmur when a doctor listens to their heart, or result in rapid breathing, difficulty feeding or a bluish hue to the skin. Older kids may notice chest pain, passing out or trouble keeping up with peers during exercise, or a racing heart while at rest.

    What treatment options are available for infants and kids with congenital heart defects?

    Treatment varies depending on the type and severity of the condition.

    • Medications can help moderate fluid and heart rhythm, either on their own or in combination with a procedure. This approach is generally used for many of our newborns with congenital heart disorders until they’re healthy enough to receive the surgical or other interventional treatment necessary.
    • Cardiac catheterization is a minimally invasive procedure that involves placing a long, thin tube into a vein or artery in the leg or arm to access the heart. It’s used to diagnose a variety of cardiac issues. Many heart conditions, like Logan’s arrhythmia, can also be treated using this approach, without the need for open-heart surgery.
    • Surgery within the first year of life is the best or only treatment option for about half of the babies with complex heart conditions. While it can be scary and overwhelming for families, this is where pre-delivery screening, conversations and planning can be really helpful. It’s also comforting to know that the vast majority of babies who require surgery for congenital cardiac disorders do very well. Genesis’ journey from diagnosis through surgery and recovery is a great example.

    A collaborative approach to congenital heart surgery in Virginia

    Families in Virginia have another reason to be reassured thanks to the collaboration between CHoR and UVA Children’s to provide local access to the best congenital heart surgery and care. The goal of the collaboration is to allow families to stay close to home while their child receives outstanding care, be it hospitalization, catheterization, rhythm treatment or surgery done by the most experienced pediatric cardiac teams. Expert follow-up care is also convenient and coordinated.

    Learn about the types of congenital heart defects.

    See the many ways our heart team cares for kids of all ages, often meeting families before their babies are born to develop a plan for a healthy future.

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