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February is heart month; kids have heart issues, too

Seventeen-year-old Addison is surrounded by her brother and sister heroes, Quinn and Sophia, while she holds her family’s personal Automated External Defibrillator (AED).

By Elean Gersack; courtesy photo

Most of us think of adults when we think of heart disease, but kids have heart problems, too. Several kids in the Castle Pines community were diagnosed with heart conditions just this past year. One of them was Addison, a 17-year-old junior at Kent Denver School.

Most kids are born with healthy hearts, but those who are not face possible surgeries, medications, and procedures. For these kids and their families, life changes forever and is full of many emotions.

A normal human heart has four chambers, four valves, and connects to major veins and arteries that send blood to the body and return it back to the heart. Heartbeats are triggered by the heart’s electrical system. The structure itself, blood flow, and timing of the beats together make up what is the most powerful organ in the body. On average, a heart beats 100,000 times each day.

During this past summer, Addison lost consciousness twice – once while swimming and once while tubing down a river. These episodes led to an evaluation at Children’s Hospital Colorado where she was diagnosed with Long QT Syndrome, an electrical malfunctioning that can throw the heart into an arrhythmia resulting in possible loss of consciousness or even death if the heart rhythm does not return to normal.

Fortunately, Addison was with family during both episodes and quick action by her brother and sister saved her life. “We were alone in a [hotel] pool, so my brother and sister first tried to pull me out but were unable to.  My brother ran and got the front desk manager and leapt over the desk to call 911 while the manager was on his way to help me. Meanwhile, the manager had my sister call 911 from the pool area,” recalls Addison. “Without their help I probably wouldn’t be here today,” she adds.

Now, Addison takes daily beta-blockers to regulate her heart, and her family has a personal Automated External Defibrillator (AED) to help re-start her heart in case of another event.

According to pediatric cardiologist David Miller, M.D., about one in one hundred children are born with a heart condition. Thanks to breakthroughs in medications and non-invasive procedures, only about ten percent require surgery. Most often, congenital heart defects are picked up early in life; however, some conditions go undiagnosed until symptoms appear down the road.

Unlike in adults, chest pain in children is rarely cardiac in origin. Most often, chest pain is associated with asthma, acid reflux or muscular pulls. However, according to Miller, chest pain with exertion does warrant evaluation, as does syncope (passing out) with activity, family history of sudden death, racing heartbeats, and poor exercise stamina in an otherwise fit and healthy child. Parents should discuss any concerns with the child’s pediatrician who can then refer him/her on to a pediatric cardiologist for evaluation if necessary. In an emergency, always call 911.

Fortunately, heart-related complaints in children are most often benign. “Seeing children with a heart complaint is like being Sherlock Holmes. We see a lot of nothing, but every once in a while, we find something,” shares Miller.

As for Addison, she is trying to live life as a normal teenager again. She is back to exercising some, but does not know what her future will hold, especially as it relates to her passion for water. “One of my dreams was to be a marine biologist and possibly a documentary filmmaker focusing on ocean conservation. I am scuba certified and I am not sure when, if ever, I will be able to dive again. The details of my dream may have to be adjusted, but I suppose that is the reality of life,” she notes.

As with other families with children who face a life-threatening condition, Addison and her family have become even closer since her diagnosis. “We all appreciate the fragility of life a little more,” she shares.



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