Meet Michigan Medicine: Congenital Heart Center

January 23, 2017  //  FOUND IN: Our Employees,

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In honor of National Birth Defects Awareness Month, Headlines is taking a closer look at the Congenital Heart Center – a department that truly takes patient care to heart. Congenital heart disease — a genetic abnormality of the heart present at birth — is the most common type of birth defect in the U.S., occurring in approximately 1 out of every 110 children.

From treating fetal heart conditions within a mother’s womb to working with pediatric patients as they grow into adulthood, a dedicated group of faculty and staff helps the Congenital Heart Center serve as a beacon of cardiac care.

Whether children are born with a hole in their heart, a missing ventricle, or arrhythmia problems, the complexity and severity of a congenital heart conditions change over time, necessitating varied treatments as the patients grow up. It’s one of the aspects that sets the Congenital Heart Center apart.

“Here, we treat ‘fetus-to-adulthood,’ which is unique among academic cardiac clinics,” said John Charpie, M.D., Ph.D., co-director of the heart center along with Richard Ohye, M.D. “Our patients get a continuity of care throughout their life.”

High volumes, high touch

Each year, CHC team members treat patients with congenital heart conditions during more than 13,000 clinic visits and carry out between 800 and 850 surgical procedures. That doesn’t include thousands of other cardiac tests.

“We can treat some patients with minimal intervention or even medication,” said Ohye. “Others may require open-heart surgery in the first few days or weeks of their life.”

Even with such high volumes, doctors, nurses, sonographers, respiratory therapists, social workers, child-life experts and many others work together to ensure patients and families get care tailored to their specific needs.

“We’re dealing with a lot of children and parents who are going through a difficult time,” said Kathy Sundbeck, one of nine pediatric cardiac sonographers.

Her team uses ultrasound to take pictures of a patient’s heart — known as echocardiograms. They then evaluate the images and collaborate with physicians to create an accurate diagnosis for each patient.

“Everyone in the CHC tries to make a visit as fun or relaxing as possible — we have stuffed animals for the kids, bright rooms, toys to play with,” Sundbeck said. “We focus on constantly improving a patient’s experience. Not only does it make them happier, but it makes them more willing to cooperate so we can get the high-quality images and test results we need to create the right treatment plan.”

In addition to sonography, cardiac experts carry out heart catheterizations, stress tests, electrocardiograms and other essential procedures.

Taking it on the road

While more than 10,000 clinic visits per year occur at the CHC in Ann Arbor, pediatric cardiologists also take U-M’s world-class care to all parts of the state.

In all, a small group of CHC physicians traveled to a dozen clinics and treated patients during more than 3,000 clinic visits last year in cities such as Petoskey, Marquette and Traverse City.

“Smaller cities or facilities may not have the specialized level of care that Michigan Medicine provides,” said Ron Grifka, M.D., who travels to Grand Rapids each week to see patients at Metro Health. “There’s a palpable sense of relief and comfort for people that they can get help from U-M experts right in their community.”

Sharing knowledge and advancements

The heart center’s focus on patient care is matched by its dedication to education and research. With 18 fellowship positions, the pediatric cardiology fellowship program is among the largest in the country.

“We see such a large variety of conditions and complex cases that this is the ideal place for somebody to train,” said Carly Fifer, M.D., who heads the fellowship program. “Many of our fellows leave to run divisions or take leadership roles at other hospitals.”

Faculty and staff also train future nurses and medical technicians. Physicians collaborate with other members of the university to develop and test new medical devices, and the CHC serves as a national leader in sharing data and best practices with more than 120 heart centers across the U.S.

“When we find something here, we want it to be able to assist patients everywhere,” Ohye said. “Our goal is to push the entire field of cardiac care forward. We do that through education, but also through clinical studies and basic science research.”

Still, the most gratifying part of the department’s work is what helps it stand out among its peers.

“When you’ve helped a baby overcome a heart defect and then get to watch them grow up and graduate high school, college and beyond, that’s special,” Fifer said. “That’s why we do what we do.”

Click here to learn more about the Congenital Heart Center.

Are you interested – or do you know someone interested – in a career in pediatric cardiology? Check out the careers homepage and search “pediatric cardiology.”   

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