Heart hero: local girl undergoes open-heart surgery, family shares journey to raise awareness

Published: Feb. 18, 2021 at 12:50 AM EST
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - About 40,000 babies are born in the United States each year with congenital heart defects, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That equates to one child every 15 minutes, and these conditions are the leading cause of death in infants.

February is American Heart Month and one local family is using it to raise awareness by sharing their own journey.

“All the stress just came flooding in and it was just paralyzing, and it is, it is a heavy burden for sure,” Jeff Pullen told WCTV’s Katie Kaplan.

Pullen’s 3-year-old daughter, Emerson, has been given the “all clear” after undergoing open-heart surgery late last year.

The family initially had no idea that their baby was sick.

“It was a normal, easy pregnancy,” said mom, Halie who gave birth at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare (TMH) in July 2017. “We were completely blindsided by it, really. As we got more information, it was a little bit scarier as we went to try and take it all in.”

Doctors first noticed a heart murmur after Emerson was born, which a local pediatric cardiologist explained can occur in up to 50-percent of newborn babies.

Unfortunately, it turned out to be something much more serious for Emerson. Doctors determined she had a hole in her little heart.

“We found that she had the most common congenital heart defect, a ventricular septal defect, or a small hole in the bottom two chambers,” explained Dr. Mac Vining, of the Wolfson Children’s Specialty Center at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare.

Dr. Vining began monitoring Emerson when she was two days old and ordered cardiac testing, including a heart ultrasound called an echocardiogram. The tests revealed the small hole between the two lower chambers of her heart, a condition known as a ventricular septal defect (VSD).

A VSD makes the heart work harder because the hole allows extra blood flow to the lungs. Large VSDs can sometimes cause slow weight gain in infants. When VSDs are large enough, they can lead to congestive heart failure. But when VSD openings are small, they often close naturally as a baby’s heart grows.

Dr. Vining recommended an initial period of observation. After three years of monitoring, Dr. Vining detected the left side of Emerson’s heart had enlarged.

“It was very obvious from her growth that she was not gaining weight as a normal child would,” he explained. “From a physiologic standpoint, she was experiencing a significant effect from her VSD that necessitated surgical closure.”

Vining referred Emerson to doctors at Wolfson Children’s Hospital in Jacksonville, which specializes in pediatric cardiac care for children, where they recommended an exploratory heart catheterization procedure followed by open-heart surgery to close the hole.

“When you start hearing the doctor go, ‘let’s check-in instead of a year, 6 months. Then 3 months,’ and then, ‘We’re gonna send this stuff off to see. You know, just see, just evaluate,” then it was like, ‘Yeah, ok. yeah, I know how this routine goes,’” said Jeff.

In August, a pediatric interventional cardiologist performed Emerson’s heart catheterization, inserting a thin, flexible tube (catheter) through a large vein in her leg and then guiding it up to her heart. During the procedure, a second hole in Emerson’s heart was discovered and was determined to be an atrial septal defect (ASD), an opening in the tissue separating the heart’s upper chambers. Surgeons also found Emerson’s tricuspid valve, which helps keep blood flowing in the right direction through the heart, was damaged and needed repair.

Emerson is now doing well after surgery and has returned to pre-school and all of her normal activities. She continues to see Dr. Vining for follow-up appointments in Tallahassee.

“You would never know she had surgery. You would never know anything was ever wrong with her,” said Jeff.

Now, Emerson is back to just being a kid and is gearing up for her next role as a proud, big sister this May.

A baby’s heart often begins to form before the mom even knows she’s pregnant, and defects can be caused by genetics, environmental factors, and even some prescription drugs. Most often though, they are spontaneous occurrences, said Dr. Vining

He added that early diagnosis is key. If you are thinking about getting pregnant, or already are pregnant and have a family history of heart disease, you should talk to your doctor.

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