Congenital Heart Disease Awareness Week is February 9 through February 14, 2015. Learn more about congenital heart defects through the American Heart Association

Niels Giddins, MD, FRCPC, FACC, is an attending pediatric cardiologist at the University of Vermont Children's Hospital, and Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM.

Niels Giddins, MD, FRCPC, FACC, is an attending pediatric cardiologist at the University of Vermont Children’s Hospital, and Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM.

It has been 15 years since February 14 was declared Congenital Heart Disease Awareness Day.

In more recent years, this significant advocacy effort has expanded internationally to include the entire week before Valentine’s Day, as it is this year.

It remains as important as ever to remember that congenital heart disease is the leading birth defect, with approximately 40,000 new diagnoses annually in this country alone. Highly effective management has improved in multiple areas, including screening, medical/surgical treatment, and follow-up care. Huge improvements in quality of life of afflicted children and adolescents have resulted. Increasing numbers of patients are now reaching adulthood, and are equally deserving of expert care, support, and research efforts.

Many of the successful advances we have seen up to now have been made possible by the collaboration of many individuals in many wide-ranging fields, with implications not immediately apparent.

For example, we have just recently passed the fortieth anniversary of the announcement of a revolutionary innovation that changed the approach to treatment of heart disease in patients of all ages.

In 1974, Andreas Gruentzig, a young German physician working at University Hospital in Zurich, Switzerland, published a paper describing the use of a new polyvinyl chloride balloon catheter to relieve arterial blockages*.  His co-author was Heinrich Hopff, a retired organic chemist and plastics expert whose input was key, as an essential characteristic of the material used was its “memory,” or ability to reach a certain size and then expand NO further, thus avoiding excessive damage to blood vessel walls.  Dr. Gruentzig would eventually pioneer the nonsurgical treatment of coronary artery disease in successfully expanding (or dilating) the obstructed coronary artery of an awake patient with this technique in 1977.  Tragically, Dr. Gruentzig and his wife perished in 1985, in the crash of their private plane. He was only 46 years of age, but nevertheless had changed the practice of cardiology forever.  It is estimated that every year more than 2 million patients undergo this type of treatment worldwide.

Pediatric cardiologists soon saw the potential benefits of this technique, not for coronary arteries, but to relieve valve and other larger blood vessel obstructions. Problems that previously required surgery could now be treated in a simpler, safer way, with much shorter recovery times and hospital stays.

So far this year in our pediatric cardiology follow-up clinic here, we have seen several patients ranging in age from two months to 19 years, all of whom have had successful balloon dilatation procedures on their pulmonary valves as young infants. More recently we have been involved in the care of two critically-ill newborns referred for just such treatment of severe congenital pulmonary valve obstruction.

These and so many other patients with congenital heart disease – along with those of us who take care of them – owe so much to the researchers continually pushing the envelope. Increasing awareness in support of their efforts is especially important on week such as this.

Niels Giddins, MD, FRCPC, FACC, is an attending pediatric cardiologist at the University of Vermont Children’s Hospital, and Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM.

*Grüntzig A, Hopff H: Perkutane Rekanalisation chronischer arterieller Verschlüsse mit einem neuen Dilatationskatheter. Dtsch Med Wochenschr. 1974;99:2502–2505.

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