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Congenital Heart Defects: More People Survive Because Of Better Diagnosis And Treatment


Each year, more than 35,000 babies are born with congenital heart defects. Chances for survival were slim not so long ago. But today, more than a million adults live with congenital heart defects. 

A pediatric surgeon with Children’s Medical Center and UT Southwestern Medical Center explains why. 

Dr. Robert Jacquiss, a pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon with Children’s Medical Center and UT Southwestern Medical Center.

Interview Highlights: 

Today’s chance for survival congenital birth defects: “For some of the defects we operate on now, when I was in medical school, survival beyond a month was unlikely. The most lethal of those is something called Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome. I graduated from medical school in 1986, and at that time, most children who had that condition, there was no treatment, Nowadays, for most children who have that, we expect probably an 80 to 90 percent chance of survival to a year. And an 80 percent chance of five years and beyond."

Reasons for that: “We are better at diagnosis. For many of these children, their problem is identified before they’re born so that we can prepare for them. Even the ones who aren’t identified in that way, we can make the diagnosis quickly after birth.”

Treatment has advanced: “The recognition of how complex these babies are, that the medications that are required need to be thought of and dosed differently, that the care they receive in the operating room and the intensive care unit is dramatically different. We are better surgeons than our predecessors – better equipment, better technology, better understanding of the disease process.”

Quality of life for those who survive congenital heart defects into adulthood: “Some of the heart conditions that we can treat in early childhood can essentially be thought of as cured, and so we can tell parents their children will grow up and have a normal quality of life and a normal life expectancy.

But: “One of the disadvantages we have in the United States with our health care system is that we don’t have a single, large computerized database, so we can’t (address that) as well as some of our colleagues in western Europe can. One of things we know is that if you have congenital heart disease of the more simple kind, you are more likely to be employed, higher educated and married than someone who doesn’t have that. That may reflect a more attentive health care system. But even for children who have very complicated heart conditions, out treatment now is so good that for the vast majority of them, they don’t really have to think of their congenital heart except when they come back to see a cardiologist and they have a reminder that they have something that still needs periodic tune-ups.”

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Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.