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Congenital heart defect can be a silent killer

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Heart defects are among the most common birth defects. The deficiency may be so minor that it is undetected for years, or so complex that it puts a life in immediate danger.

Candace Walker went to physician after physician only to be left in the dark about what was causing her 17-year-old son Clinton to have seizures that would cause him to run, jump, moan and bite his tongue for up to two or three minutes.

“We never found out what caused our son to go through these seizures, none of the doctors we took him to ever (saw) that type of seizure before,” explained Walker. “The week he was scheduled to see a new doctor, Clinton died.”

Walker later discovered Clinton died from a congenital heart defect; a condition he was born with but did not show any signs of possessing.

Data reveal that one out of every 125 infants is born with heart defects each year in the United States.

“It’s very rare,” said Dr. Jennie Abarbanell, a pediatric cardiologist at St. Vincent Children’s Hospital. “It affects less than one percent of the population. It’s a scary thing. (Heart defects) range from holes in the heart, leaky valves and abnormal heart chambers.”

Heart defects begin to develop during the early part of pregnancy when the heart is initially forming. It is called congenital when it is present at birth. Congenital heart defects can affect any part or functions of the heart.

Some infants or children with the condition experience no symptoms, however the heart defect may be diagnosed if the doctor hears an abnormal sound, referred to as a murmur.

Certain heart defects prevent the heart from pumping sufficient blood to the lungs or other parts of the body, which can cause congestive heart failure. An affected child may have a rapid heart beat and difficulty breathing especially during physical activity.

While some children show no signs of the imperfection the ones that do are often overlooked because the symptoms can be minor.

“He was your typical teenager, appeared healthy, played basketball,” Walker said of her son. “He had a physical, but (doctors) didn’t really check his heart they just listened to it with a stethoscope and that was it. When he began to experience seizures (physicians) normally thought it was his head, they never checked his heart.”

According to Walker, Clinton had been through a CAT scan, MRI, EEG, a sleep clinic test because he would have seizures in his sleep and finally a group of blood tests only to be told the various tests were normal. The doctors diagnosed Clinton with non-epileptic seizures and put him on behavioral medication, thinking the outbursts were neurologically caused.

Some advances in research and treatment have led to the increase of survival among children with heart defects.

“Depending upon the case, we have surgeries to treat patients with general heart disease. We can also fix the abnormal coronary artery origin with surgery,” Abarbaell explained. “Some can be treated medically; when it gets severe, we perform a heart transplant.”

Abarbanell noted that what parents should look for are chest pains and fainting with exercise as possible symptoms associated with heart defects.

The American Heart Association advises concerned people to see their doctor who should do an adequate physical and family history exam. If that becomes worrisome an electrocardiogram (ECG) is recommended and if any abnormalities still exist one should see a specialist.

Sometimes the smallest symptoms are the most important ones to regard and parents are advised to be mindful of any unusual behavior.

“Really listen to your child, keep looking for what could be wrong with them, because Clinton gave us many warning signs. We wasted a lot of time and Clinton could have been saved,” Walker added. “The fact that he lived 17 years with it not being detected is a miracle in itself. This really is a silent killer.”

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