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How is a congenital heart defect treated?

UCLA offers a full-service fetal-cardiology program that interfaces with multiple disciplines—including maternal fetal medicine, pediatric and adult cardiology, pediatric cardiothoracic surgery, neonatology and nursing. Soon after a heart defect is diagnosed, parents begin meeting with the doctors who will be involved with treatment and tour the neonatal and cardiothoracic intensive care units where their child will receive continual monitoring and nursing care.

Among the technologies used to provide comprehensive evaluation and monitoring of the unborn child with congenital heart disease are first-, second- and third-trimester transvaginal/transabdominal echocardiography, which utilize state-of-the art 2D, 3D and 4D technology to evaluate the fetal heart. Additionally, fetal-heart monitoring may be conducted during the third trimester to check for fetal distress and intervene when necessary. For infants anticipated to require invasive cardiac catheterization or surgery soon after delivery, arrangements can be made for the mother to deliver in the same facility where the surgery will occur. This capability eliminates the need for transport and delays in management, and prevents mother and child from being separated.

In a high-risk pregnancy that requires hospitalization for treatment of a fetal condition, such as a fetal arrhythmia, there are really two patients, says Mark Sklansky, MD, chief of pediatric cardiology at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA. "At UCLA, we have both adult and pediatric cardiologists, working collaboratively with obstetricians and maternal-fetal medicine subspecialists, to provide both the mother and fetus with comprehensive care." An increasing percentage of children with even complex heart defects are surviving into adulthood and leading active, productive lives.

Doctors decide the best treatment for a congenital heart defect, depending on the person's age, the kind of heart defect and the seriousness of symptoms. Some childen with heart defects don’t even need treatment. Others may be treated with medicines or surgery. There are also catheter based treatments. For this, doctors use special tools to close holes or enlarge vessels in the heart without needing surgery. Some children with congenital heart defects may actually need a few operations throughout their lives. Sometimes, doctors can fix the heart defect before birth.

Dr. Daniel P. O'Hair, MD
Cardiothoracic Surgeon

Depending on the type of congenital heart defect you have and your other medical problems, your doctor will recommend different treatment options. Some options include:

  • Open heart surgery to repair the defect
  • Medical management with medication and watching for symptoms of a fluid shunt or heart failure
  • Closure of the defect with a procedure in the cardiac catheterization lab (This procedure involves inserting a catheter into the femoral vein and placing a metal mesh closure device over the defect. Your doctor can explain this procedure in detail if it is an option for you.)

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.