Medical Moment: Treating ‘Swiss cheese hearts’

Published: May. 23, 2023 at 5:38 PM EDT
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(WNDU) - Congenital heart defects are one of the most common birth defects occurring in one in 1000 newborns worldwide. In the U.S. alone, some 40,000 babies are born each year with some form of congenital heart defect. One mom not only was born with one, but both of her babies were too.

“This is Emery Grissom. And that is Riley Grissom,” said Tracey Grissom, mother.

The twins were born with holes in their hearts, something their mom knows all about.

“I was born with a congenital heart defect,” Grissom said.

Tracey was born with a rare condition known as “Swiss cheese heart.” She had holes between the lower two chambers of her heart.

“If you were to look at that wall, that septum, it would look like Swiss cheese,” explained Rajesh Shenoy, MD, a pediatric cardiologist at Wolfson Children’s Hospital.

Tracey had her holes repaired when she was eight months old, but because of her heart defect, Tracey and her husband Paul had Emery and Riley through a surrogate. Not only did the family history put them at risk for heart problems, but having them by IVF put them at even higher risk.

“To find out that both your children are gonna have congenital heart defects, it was mind-blowing,” Grissom said.

Emery’s holes in the bottom chamber of the heart will likely close as she grows. But Riley?

“Essentially, a huge chunk of the wall between the bottom two chambers was missing,” Dr. Shenoy said.

Within weeks, Riley was struggling.

“He was in overt heart failure,” Dr. Shenoy continued. “He was breathing at around 60 to 70 times a minute. That’s about two or three times faster than a newborn should breathe.”

Doctors at Wolfson Children’s Hospital performed a pulmonary artery banding, putting a tie around the pulmonary artery, preventing the extra blood flow from flooding into little Riley’s lungs. He went back to breathing normally.

“While in the past, he just could not gain weight because his heart and his lungs were working overtime, he’s overtaken his sister right now,” Dr. Shenoy finished.

After 140 days in the hospital, Riley went home with his sister, gaining weight and getting stronger, and just had open-heart surgery to close the holes in his heart.

IVF does increase the odds of any baby having a heart defect. That’s why doctors recommend genetic testing be done in vitro. Riley had to have surgery several weeks ago because his condition rapidly declined. Little Emery will also need heart surgery, but not until she is three or four years old. Doctors say both children are expected to grow up and live a normal, active life.