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Rady Children's Specialists

Patient and Parent Education

We strive to educate patients and families about common and uncommon congenital heart conditions.

Normal Heart

The normal mature heart consists of two separate sides with separate purposes. The right side (right atrium, right ventricle and pulmonary artery) receives oxygen-depleted or “blue” blood returning through the veins from the head and arms via the superior vena cava, and from the legs and organs via the inferior vena cava. “Blue” blood collects in the right atrium, a thin walled chamber of the heart, before the one-way tricuspid valve opens to let it flow into the right ventricle.

The muscular right ventricle pushes “blue” blood through the pulmonary artery to the lungs, where it becomes oxygenated or “red” before returning to the left side of the heart (left atrium, left ventricle, and aorta). The pulmonary veins return the “red” blood to the thin-walled left atrium before passing through the mitral valve into the left ventricle.

The left ventricle is the most powerful and thickest muscular chamber of the heart, pushing freshly oxygenated blood out through the aorta and its branch arteries, to meet the demands of the head, arms, legs and organs. The first branches of the aorta are the coronary arteries, which arise close to the heart and are essential to supply the muscle of the heart itself. When the heart and other organs of the body have consumed the oxygen, blood is again “blue” and makes its return through veins to the right side of the heart to begin the cycle anew.

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Congenital Heart Disease

Congenital heart disease is the term used to describe any heart problem present at birth. These types of heart conditions occur while the heart is developing. Because the heart is made up of many important structures, a variety of problems can occur. As a group, heart malformations are very common. Approximately 8 out of every 1,000 babies are born with a heart problem, which can range from minor to quite complicated.

Often babies show signs of having a heart defect in the first few days to weeks of life. Sometimes the problem is so mild that it may go undetected for several months to years. A variety of signs may be present that make your baby’s doctor suspicious about a heart condition. Abnormal heart sounds, difficulty feeding, fast breathing, bluish skin color, or poor growth are examples of some of these signs.

If the doctor is concerned about the heart, your baby will likely be referred to a heart specialist (i.e., cardiologist). If necessary, several diagnostic techniques are available to help the cardiologist diagnose the type of heart defect.

Treatment varies depending on the exact problem with the heart. Initially, the patient may only require routine exams to follow the heart condition. In other cases, medication may be needed. A significant portion of patients may actually need heart surgery either as babies or during childhood. Surgery can be minor. However, because many heart malformations are complicated, the surgery may be quite complicated. If surgery is necessary, a highly trained group of intensive care doctors, cardiologists, and heart surgeons will care for your baby. They will also help you to understand the care your baby will receive before, during, and after surgery.

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Typical Cardiac Tests

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