SNOHOMISH, Wash. - A Snohomish girl was one of the first in our region to receive a new heart valve without open heart surgery.
It's a new frontier for treating a heart defect in children.
Twelve-year-old Leah Foster doesn't remember much about her open heart surgery four years ago, but her mother does.
"Seeing your child when they get out of open heart surgery, I mean you hardly recognize them," Cindy Foster said. "There are tubes absolutely everywhere."
Leah had received a new heart valve to repair a congenital heart defect. She spent weeks in the hospital and months healing.
"It took so long and it seemed to take everything out of her," Cindy Foster said.
But replacement valves eventually wear out, and Leah was facing a second open heart surgery this past summer.
"I didn't really want to have it again," said the sixth-grader.
She didn't have to. She received a new kind of heart valve.
Dr. Thomas Jones, professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of Washington, directs the catheterization laboratory at Seattle Children's. He showed us a model of a valve made from cow tissue.
"The stent is the metallic mesh that you see on the outside," he said. "And the valve is here within the inside of the device."
"It just so happens that the jugular veins of cows are precisely the same diameter of the pulmonary artery in human beings," Jones said.
Now a clinical trial of the valves is underway at five pediatric hospitals around the country. In the procedure, the valve is threaded through a tiny catheter, and deployed into place in a young patient's heart. It replaces the existing valve, and begins working immediately. The only incision is a tiny puncture in the patient's groin.
"We are taking children who otherwise would be subjected to second, third, or fourth open heart operations, and instead converting that into a procedure done through a catheter," Jones said.
Leah was one of his first patients to have the procedure this summer at Seattle Children's. She was home the next day.
The children will be followed for years to see how safely and effectively the new valves do their jobs. Early study results suggest they may outperform valves implanted in open heart surgery.
The new heart valve procedure is only available through the study right now.
And there's good news for Leah: Her new valve should function just as well as she grows up to adult size.