Baby with heart defect beats the odds

Published 9:34 am Friday, March 5, 2010

FRANKLIN—Ethan Walker, who will be 3 months old next week, has been beating the odds and surprising his parents and doctors since his birth.

Looking at Ethan today, you would never know he was born with a heart defect that essentially left him with half of a heart.

When Joey Walker was five months pregnant, the doctor performed a typical ultrasound and saw something that didn’t look right. Walker and her husband, Ashley, were sent to Eastern Virginia Medical School for another ultrasound, where they received devastating news.

The baby had Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome, a type of congenital heart defect characterized by the partial or complete failure of the left side of the heart to develop. The defect is one of several that are commonly referred to as “Blue Baby Syndrome,” because the babies are usually born with a blue tint.

“We had never heard of it,” Walker said. Doctors at EVMS explained the defect, but didn’t go “into depth of how serious it was.” When they got home, the Walkers did their own research.

“We looked online, and that’s when we were just devastated,” she said Monday in the family’s Franklin apartment. “I was scared to death when I found out.”

Congenital heart defects aren’t uncommon. Some form of congenital heart defect is present in about 1 in 100 babies, according to Dr. William Moskowitz, a professor and chief of pediatric cardiology at Virginia Commonwealth University Health System in Richmond. He said most heart defects are “multifactorial,” caused by some combination of genetics and environmental factors.

“Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome makes up about 1 percent of congenital heart defects,” he said.

Moskowitz said the prognosis for babies born with defects like Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome has improved greatly in recent years.

“Twenty years ago or more, most discussions were moving toward abortion because there wasn’t anything good to offer,” he said. “We would expect, in 2010, that 85 percent of babies born with heart diseases … will reach adulthood.”

Walker said doctors gave her and her husband several options when they found out about Ethan’s heart defect — including abortion, but Walker said that was out of the question.

“The first thing both of us said was this is God’s miracle,” she said.

Other options included a heart transplant, carrying the baby to term and not having any medical work done or three separate surgeries on the heart, which is the most common route and the one the Walkers chose.

Walker said once they found out about Ethan’s heart defect, they turned to their church, Courtland Baptist.

“We started walking the path that we need to walk,” she said. “We couldn’t have made it through at all whatsoever, without our church.”

Finding out about Ethan’s heart defect early allowed the family and doctors time to prepare. The Walkers were referred to Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina, because of the hospital’s expertise in dealing with pediatric cardiology.

“Getting the information ahead of time is what we like to hear, especially for babies with Hypoplastic Left Heart … it affords the parents, the family and all of the caregivers to be on top of things and take care of all the contingencies before the baby is born,” Moskowitz said.

That’s exactly what the Walkers and the staff at Duke did. The hospital even fought the Walkers’ insurance company, which was reluctant to approve medical care outside of Virginia.

“Our experience at Duke was amazing,” she said. Doctors gave Ethan a drug called Prostaglandin that kept the left side of his heart from closing as it would’ve done soon after he was born.

After Ethan was born, doctors rushed him to another room to make sure that he was OK.

“We had to wait about six hours to see him again, and that was heart wrenching,” Walker said.

When Ethan was 6 days old, doctors performed the first of three surgeries he will have to endure to treat his heart condition. Doctors told the family to be prepared for what they would see — because of the swelling the surgery causes for babies, their chests are actually left open for about a week after the surgery.

Ethan however did so well he was “sewed up the next day,” his mother said. He continued to amaze doctors by breathing on his own just after the surgery and being fed with a bottle — not a feeding tube like most babies with the condition.

“The doctors would come in and say we don’t really need to do anything with Ethan today he’s just doing so wonderful. They just kind of left us alone. We became his nurses,” Walker said.

Hospital visitor restrictions brought on by the H1N1 influenza virus prevented Ethan’s older brother, 11-year-old Jared Moore, from being able to see him until a few weeks after he was born.

“My son finally got to see his brother on Christmas Day, and that was amazing and it was just unreal,” Walker said. “And now he just loves him to death, he can’t stop touching him and talking to him and singing to him.”

Ethan was able to go home two and a half weeks after his surgery, without the aid of oxygen or feeding tubes. To put that in perspective, Walker said a baby who had the same surgery a month and a half before Ethan was still in the hospital this week.

Walker and her husband stayed in North Carolina with Ethan the whole time he was in the hospital. With the support of co-workers, the community and family members, Walker said the family “didn’t have to worry about anything,” while they were there.

Ethan’s next surgery is coming up in June and then he’ll have another one when he is around 2 to 3 years old. The fact that he came through the first surgery so well is a good sign for Ethan.

“Usually the first procedure carries the most risk,” Moskowitz said. “For the stage 2 and stage 3, there usually isn’t much mortality at all.”

As far as the long-term prognosis for babies with heart defects that require surgery, Moskowitz said, “The vast majority of them will get surgical repairs that allow them to lead pretty close to normal lives.”

“Certainly with more severe defects they would never really be competitive athletes because you need to have four chambers of the heart and four valves and everything hooked up right and some genetic potential,” he said. After three operations, you’re still left with only a three-chamber heart and it’s hard to run marathons when you don’t have all of your equipment. But certainly there are kids with Hypoplastic Left Heart who are enjoying themselves and having pickup sports and playing some sports relatively well — usually the non-impact non endurance sports.”

Walker hopes Ethan will continue to beat the odds.

“Everything that (the doctors) have said he’s proved them wrong, they actually would come into the room with us and say, ‘Don’t get your hopes up. Expect some bumps, there are always bumps. Something is going to go wrong.’ We were like ok you might say that but we don’t believe you,” Walker said.

Walker said expectant mothers should always request an EKG, because it can detect defects early on.

“Ethan had the upper hand because he did have the echocardiogram, and that’s something that mom’s can ask for when they’re pregnant,” she said. “Maybe I was given this to help somebody else. We all have a purpose.”