There is nothing more rewarding than saving the life of a child.
Take Matthew Alvarado, for example. Within hours of collapsing after water polo practice, this 15-year-old star athlete could not breathe. Pediatric cardiologists at our Willson Heart Center determined the cause was cor triatriatum, a deadly congenital heart defect normally detected shortly after birth. To make matters worse, Matthew was too ill to undergo the emergency open-heart surgery he needed.
Fortunately, Valley Children’s Healthcare handles complex cases like Matthew’s every day. This is what we do – evaluate, diagnose and treat kids, sometimes even before birth. Since surgery was not an immediate option for Matthew, I was confident we could stabilize him by performing a less invasive catheterization procedure.
Even when I ran into an unexpected problem during the procedure, I had the right tools, team and experience to create and perform a different approach on the spot. Within minutes, Matthew’s vital signs dramatically improved.
The reason I was able to help Matthew get a second chance at life was because of the amazing opportunity Valley Children’s offered me 20 years ago in launching its interventional cardiology program. Dr. Kenneth Jue and Dr. James Prochazka, who developed our heart program into the fine institution it is today, had the vision to recognize this exciting new frontier.
Not only did they sponsor my fourth year of fellowship training before I came on board full time, they also empowered me to design the state-of-the-art catheterization lab in preparation for the hospital’s move to its new Madera campus. Their belief in me is truly humbling. After all, I knew the inspiring legacy I was joining.
Valley Children’s began making significant impacts from the moment it opened in 1952. Soon our cardiology and cardiac surgery program began building a long list of impressive milestones.
From performing our first open-heart surgery in 1958 – only six years after the first such surgery occurred in the U.S. – to achieving the first accredited pediatric echocardiography laboratory in North America in 1997, we have a history of becoming an early adopter of the latest technology.
During the heart center’s early years, we were even the region’s sole provider of both pediatric and adult heart surgical care. In 1998, we were the first in the Valley to close holes in the heart using only catheters.
And since 2001, our cardiothoracic surgery program, whose surgeons are from Stanford University School of Medicine, has been part of one of the largest pediatric cardiothoracic surgical programs in North America.
Thanks to every technological breakthrough, accomplishment and expansion, hundreds of vulnerable infants, children, adolescents and young adults have received a second chance at life like Matthew.
They might be like Melinda Cavalletto, who at 5 months old in 1968 became the world’s youngest known survivor of a mitral valve replacement. Today she is a wife and mother who runs marathons.
Or they could be like Devon Robinson, who, after already undergoing three open-heart surgeries since infancy for his congenital defect, was thrilled to have his deteriorating artificial pulmonary valve replaced through less invasive means. In 2013, this 13-year-old was among our initial patients when we performed the region’s first nonsurgical heart valve replacement using the Melody Transcatheter Pulmonary Valve.
Children are innocents in this world. It is not their fault that they were born with or acquired a serious heart condition. Each story is unique but our goal is the same: to provide the best pediatric care to give every ill and injured child throughout Central California the greatest opportunity for a healthy, happy and productive life.
None of this would be feasible without our amazing team. As Prochazka says, all of our pediatric nurses, pediatric anesthesiologists, pediatric respiratory therapists, pediatric subspecialists and more work together seamlessly like an extraordinary symphony orchestra to produce the best possible outcome. We do not stop and we do not give up; the stakes are too high.
Jue is now retired and Prochazka, after 40 years at Valley Children’s, continues to proudly lead The Willson Heart Center into the new millennium. Advancements in our field have enabled more young heart patients to survive and live longer. The next challenge in pediatric heart care that we are already pursuing is ensuring their successful transition to adulthood and their ability to maintain excellent health for years to come.
Matthew, who lives in Manteca, sets a positive example in this regard. A few weeks after his catheterization procedure, he underwent open-heart surgery at Valley Children’s to permanently fix his heart defect. Just two months later, he won second place in a diving competition. Now this dynamic 21-year-old coaches youth cheer teams in the Bay Area and also competes himself nationally in that sport.
Matthew’s simple yet profound words of gratitude continue to inspire me and our entire team: “Valley Children’s made my future possible.”
To see Matthew’s inspiring journey and other stories, please visit our website at http://heart.valleychildrens.org/heart/heart-home and our YouTube channel at https://m.youtube.com/user/californiachildrens.
Carl Owada, M.D., is a pediatric interventional cardiologist and medical director, Pediatric Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory at Valley Children’s Healthcare.