Matthew’s Story: Treating a Congenital Heart Defect

Matthew lives in the Michigan woods, 300 miles from Chicago. Just in his 20s, he loves bow hunting and dreams of going back to college and working overseas. He also was born with a heart defect, a hole in his heart that kept him out of the military after high school — dashing one long-held dream.

Matthew received a frightening reminder that the defect could keep him from achieving other goals when he developed endocarditis, a serious heart infection that landed him in the hospital. It was so serious that he needed intravenous antibiotics for six weeks. Doctors told him a future infection could be deadly.

Matthew’s defect, a hole between the two lower pumping chambers of the heart, is known as a muscular ventricular septal defect. To correct the problem, his doctor in Michigan recommended Ziyad M. Hijazi, MD, an interventional cardiologist at Rush University Medical Center and an internationally recognized pioneer in the nonsurgical repair of heart defects.

People like Matthew who have holes in their hearts are predisposed to long-term health complications, such as endocarditis, Hijazi says, which makes closing the holes the best option for some people.

Open-heart surgery was an option. But surgery would have involved cutting the breast bone in half, spreading it apart, putting the patient on a bypass machine and stopping the heart — a process not without risk. “Also, the location of the heart defect would have made it very difficult to reach without cutting through the muscle of the heart,” Hijazi says. “Obviously, that’s a big deal.”

Fortunately, Matthew had a better option. The procedure offered by Hijazi and his team, including Clifford Kavinsky, MD, PhD, and Ra-id Abdulla, MD, could be performed on a beating heart and required only two puncture points so small they did not need stitches. Additionally, it took just one and a half hours, instead of the four to five needed for open-heart surgery. Also integral to Matthew’s care were Mary Pappas, BSN, RN, and Kathleen Nolan, RTR, a cardiac catheterization laboratory technologist.

Hijazi and his team implanted a device that he has been testing for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) since 1998 and that received formal FDA approval just weeks before Matthew’s surgery. It consists of two small mesh discs that collapse into a catheter. Doctors insert the catheter into the chest through one of the puncture sites and thread it through the blood vessels into the heart. Once in the heart, the discs expand to seal the hole.

“His own tissue will grow over the device, covering it completely,” says Hijazi, who has more experience using the device than any other doctor in the United States.

While open-heart surgery would have required Matthew to spend about a week in the hospital and six weeks recovering at home, he was able to go home the next day. Instead of a “zipper” scar down his chest, Matthew needed just two small bandages to protect the puncture sites.

The device in Matthew’s heart is permanent and significantly reduces his risk of future infections.

“He can compete in the Olympics if he wants,” Hijazi says. After his surgery, Matthew was content to prepare for turkey-hunting season and to let his dreams — which once seemed impossible — take flight. “For the first time,” he says. “I’m not sick.”

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