The congenital heart program at Children’s Hospital of Illinois.

Once upon a time, children born with heart defects didn’t live to see their first birthday. Sometimes, they barely survived being born. The statistics are still a little scary: in eight out of every 1,000 live births, the baby suffers from a congenital heart disease. It’s still the leading cause for mortality due to birth defects, but thanks to advances in diagnosis, treatment and long-term care, children with congenital heart abnormalities are becoming adults and living full, productive lives.

A Legacy of Care
The roots of the Congenital Cardiac Care program at Children’s Hospital of Illinois were established in 1967 when Dr. William Albers, pediatric cardiologist and first specialist, arrived in Peoria. He performed the first cardiac catheterization in the area in 1969. The first congenital open heart surgery was performed by Dr. Harold Collins in 1972.

Following the addition of Greg Frary, the state’s first registered pediatric cardiac sonographer, in 1977, the congenital cardiovascular surgery program was started at Children’s Hospital by Dr. Dale Geiss in 1980. The 1980s saw a number of procedural “firsts,” including the first pulmonary valve angioplasty in the state of Illinois by Dr. J.J. Shah, the first atrial transeptal catheterization performed by Dr. Stephen Bash in 1985, and the first arterial switch operation by Dr. Geiss in 1986. The first stent placement in a pulmonary artery was done by Dr. Shah in 1998.

This and much more led to the accreditation of the Fetal Cardiac Echocardiography program in 2007, the second such designation in Illinois. In 2009, the Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) program was the first in the state to be recognized as a Center of Excellence. The technology continues to evolve, and in 2013, pediatric cardiologist Dr. Matthew Bramlet’s work with 3-D heart models from cardiac MRIs achieved worldwide recognition.

“None of what we do today would have been possible without the foresight and leadership of Dr. Albers and others from the beginning,” says Dr. David Chan, pediatric electrophysiologist and Congenital Heart Program medical director. “They made the decision that this community—and downstate Illinois—deserved the level of care offered through a comprehensive congenital heart program. What we have today is their legacy.”

Recent Advances
The status of the program is reflected in the numbers: 12 cardiologists; two congenital cardiothoracic surgeons; five nurse practitioners; 30 to 40 subspecialists, including pediatric intensivists, pediatric general surgeons and neurologists; about 100 clinical support personnel, including nurses, perfusionists, respiratory therapists, patient care techs, dietitians and social workers; two centralized campuses in Peoria and Rockford; and multiple clinic locations from the Wisconsin border south to Decatur, stretching from Iowa to Indiana.

Since 1980, the program has seen an increase from fewer than 50 procedures a year on children who required complex congenital heart surgery to nearly 300 procedures by 2013. Over the last 25 years, its surgeons have performed nearly 6,500 operations on children and adults with congenital heart disease.

“Some of the greatest advances have been in fetal ultrasound. We are now able to diagnose a problem before the baby is born—it’s one of our biggest diagnostic tools,” explains Dr. Mark Plunkett, congenital cardiothoracic surgeon, who performed heart surgeries at Children’s Hospital in the late ‘90s and recently rejoined the team. “When you think about it, our entire specialty is less than 60 years old. Fifty years ago, the vast majority of children born with a significant heart defect died; just 20 to 30 years ago, half died. Now, with advances in surgical therapy, greater than nine out of 10 children are doing well into adulthood, leading quality lives.”

“It is our goal to continue to do innovative research, like the work with the 3D heart models,” says Dr. Karl Welke, congenital cardiothoracic surgeon. “There are fewer than 200 surgeons in the entire country who do what we do here and only 120 such programs. What we offer is special.”

“All of the pieces of the major national programs exist here, and our surgical results and outcomes are excellent,” adds Dr. Chan. “We are continually finding better and more innovative ways to improve the care for these kids, while challenged to do so in the present healthcare environment. Support from the Sisters—and the mission of OSF—is the driving force for everything we do. It’s what separates us from the others.” iBi

Shelli Dankoff is a senior media relations specialist at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center.