Marissa Wooten’s maternal instincts kicked in minutes after her son was born in 2012.
Unlike her two very vocal daughters before him, baby Nolan cried for just a second and then lay lethargically on her chest. Something didn’t seem right. The delivery nurses told Wooten that some infants transition after birth differently and that everything was OK. But she noticed that Nolan had a blue tint.
“Usually babies are mad when they come out and they cry and cry. He just laid there,” Wooten said. “It was scary.”
Wooten continued to express her concerns, prompting nurses to do a pulse oximetry reading. Nolan’s oxygen level was 60 percent, far below a normal 95 to 100 percent. His care quickly became more intense. Staff intubated him and brought him by ambulance to University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital.
Nolan was admitted to the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit and started undergoing tests. Doctors suspected a rare congenital heart defect called transposition of the great arteries (TGA).
Often fatal if uncorrected, TGA is a condition in which the two main arteries leaving a baby’s heart are reversed. So rather than having oxygen-rich blood flowing from the lungs to the body, it flows right back to the lungs. This leaves babies struggling to get enough oxygen, said Pediatric Cardiologist Rebecca Ameduri, MD, who cares for Nolan.
When he was 6 days old, Nolan had an open-heart operation in which surgeons switched his arteries back to normal. The medical staff kept assuring Wooten and her husband Shawn that TGA is the best of the serious heart defects to have, but the family still was extremely nervous. After all, a newborn’s heart is the size of a walnut, and the coronary arteries are like strands of hair, adding to the intricacy of the surgery.
Though TGA occurs only in 1 in 3,300 live births, the Masonic Children’s Hospital’s pediatric cardiac surgeons have ample experience correcting it. The hospital treats about five to eight infants who have TGA annually, Ameduri said.
Treating children like Nolan who have complex heart conditions is part of the University’s long and storied history of pediatric cardiac care. It’s been a center of innovation since the 1950s, when University of Minnesota surgeons performed the world’s first successful open-heart surgery on a child.
This legacy of leadership continues today. M Health physicians are spearheading a $13 million National Institutes of Health grant focused on identifying childhood predictors of adult cardiovascular disease—a first-of-its-kind study. In addition, researchers here are investigating insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome and their effects on children’s heart health.
This deep commitment to innovation and excellence in care are two of the reasons Cardiovascular Surgeon Anthony Azakie, MD, CM, joined the M Health team. In February, Azakie became co-director of the Pediatric Heart Center and chief of the Division of Pediatric Cardiac Surgery. He considers the University of Minnesota the birthplace of pediatric heart surgery, and he aims to continue breaking ground in improving treatments and techniques.
“We are creating a new era of care for children who have heart defects. We are developing the premier pediatric cardiac program, where we achieve superb outcomes while advancing the field,” said Azakie. “That’s consistent with the history of the University of Minnesota.”
Little Nolan spent six weeks in the hospital after surgery to correct his TGA before the Wootens were able to take him home to Plymouth, Minn. Though his heart had been repaired, Nolan still had some struggles. He had a second open-heart surgery at 5 months old to widen his pulmonary artery—a common complication.
Despite the stress of having a sick baby, two other children to care for, and a husband who works on the road as a minor league baseball coach, Wooten felt well cared for at Masonic Children’s Hospital. The medical care was excellent, she says, and every time her girls came to visit Nolan, they were welcomed into family playrooms and entertained by volunteers.
In fact, the experience made such an impression on Nolan’s sister Kylee that she raised money to give 500 books to patients at the hospital.
“Obviously, nobody wants to be in the hospital in that situation. But because we had to be, it was the best experience I could imagine,” Wooten said. “Everyone was so nice and caring and answered my 7 million questions.” The nurses and physicians always were available, she said, even checking on their patients on days off.
Nolan sees Ameduri now for annual checkups, where she monitors his arteries and overall heart health. “Children with TGA tend to do very well long term,” she said. “Everything is connected as it should be.”
“He’s doing really well, and we’re really fortunate,” Wooten said.