GRAND RAPIDS, Mich — According to doctors at Spectrum Health, in the U.S. alone, there are more than 2 million people who suffer from congenital heart disease; a condition people are born with.
February 7th marks the start of Congenital Heart Defect Awareness’ week and Spectrum Health doctors tell FOX 17 it’s important to know that the condition is something that can be treated, even if you’re diagnosed later on in life.
Willow Eggleston, a 66-year-old woman from the Lansing area knows this situation all too well.
Eggleston has pulmonary hypertension and started having more severe problems with tiredness and breathing more than a year ago.
She said, “They told me, a year and a half ago, ‘I don’t know if you’re going to make it Mrs. Eggleston.’”
It’s a prognosis, Eggleston is very happy to say, she proved wrong.
She was born with a hole in her heart, but didn’t learn about it until she was 45, despite dealing with symptoms her whole life.
Eggleston said that seeing the right doctor and talking about her symptoms saved her life.
“Don’t be scared to go to the doctor. If you’ve got a good heart doctor, go, explain your symptoms, let them know." she said.
A hole in the heart is one of more than 360 different sub-diagnoses of these defects according to Dr. Marcus Haw, the Co-Director and Chief of Cardiac Surgery at the Congenital Heart Center at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
Dr. Haw said, “It usually causes flow disturbances within the heart which causes breathlessness, tiredness.”
Eggleston’s surgeon, Co-Director and Chief of Cardiology at the Congenital Heart Center at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital, Dr. Joseph Vettukattil explained that defects happen before a baby is born and can present soon after.
Dr. Vettukattil said, “If a child is born with difficulty feeding, looks slightly bluer than normal, or is taking more time to feed or breathe, or they are breathless, they should be evaluated urgently.”
Sometimes, symptoms can present later on in life said Dr. Vettukattil.
“What’s important is to look at early symptoms like if you have fainting, if you have exercise induced chest pain, if there’s difficulty climbing stairs and you’re breathless when doing sporting activities, or if there is a family history of cardiac problems,” he said.
Eggleston came to see doctor Vettukattil more than a year ago.
“She was extremely unwell and we got a special device made for her and then brought it here with approval from the FDA,” said Dr. Vettukattil.
The customized stent repaired Eggelston’s heart and improved her life significantly. She said she can now go walking, enjoys cooking elaborate meals, and can go to the store without feeling tired or sleepy all day.
It’s a life-change she attributes to her doctors, especially Dr. Vettukatil.
Eggleston said, “He actually gave me 20 to 30 more years of quality life and for me now as a senior, to live and enjoy and enjoy my grandbabies.”
Both Dr.’s Haw and Vettukattil said that results like Eggleston’s is proof that a congenital heart disease can be treated in so many different ways at any point in life.
Dr. Haw said, “Electrical treatment, drugs, or surgery or cardiac catheterization, and it is transformational for patients who can’t go down to Meijer, who can’t walk on the beach, suddenly they’re able to do all these normal things they could do 10 years earlier.”
Dr. Haw said that most congenital heart issues are found now before a baby is born and Spectrum Health offers comprehensive and streamlined care right away, including surgery and monitoring a patient as they age into adulthood.
Spectrum’s Congenital Heart Center has also partnered with Michigan State University to research and track congenital heart defect data.
Since the program started at the hospital in 2012, MSU reports a 43% decrease in mortality rate for children born with the disease in the West Michigan area.