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Close to the Heart: Lexie O'Connor's story of open heart surgery

By WKTV News

UTICA, N.Y. (WKTV) - Health experts say the heart is the most common organ in the body to have a birth defect and 1 in 100 children are born with a defect in the heart. NEWSChannel 2's Lexie O'Connor opens up about her own open heart surgery and looks into how the procedure has changed.

"A lot of children who have this show signs of tiredness, we didn't notice that in you, you were a normal little girl," said Martha O'Connor, Lexie's mother.

Lexie was born with an Atrial Septal Defect (ASD) or hole in the heart.

"The upper chambers of the heart is called the atria, lower chambers ventricles and the wall between the two chambers of the heart is called the septum, so you had a defect in the septum between the atria, atrial septum defect or ASD," said pediatric cardiologist Dr. Frank Smith.

Dr. Smith says it's one of the most common birth defects of the heart and if left unclosed, leads to major problems.

"Particularly the ASD that you had, if a large ASD is left unclosed it will lead to excess blood going this way through her heart into right side of heart and out to your lungs and that leads to a significant enlargement of the heart and high pressure in the lung artery," said Dr. Smith. "That can cause major problems into young adulthood and adulthood, and at that point it's too late to do anything."

While it may be over 20 years later, doctors explain the defect the same way to parents, through drawings, diagrams and charts showing an odd beat.

"It can close by itself up to 4 or 5 years of age so we always let nature take its course to see if it will close by itself then if it doesn't, and it's big enough then treatment is needed," said Dr. Smith.

The treatment however has changed. Now many children with a hole in their heart can have it closed with a catheterization procedure, no open heart surgery needed.

"A tiny tube is put in a vein in the leg threaded up inside the circulation...the tube goes up through the hole and on the end of the tube is an umbrella like device that can fasten the hole and it can be closed from within the heart," said Dr. Smith. "What used to require three or five days in the hospital, now can be done in two hours and the child might have a one night observation and go home the following morning."

But Dr. Smith stresses they do have to be careful which children get the treatments, often times open heart surgery is still best.

"It's always difficult to give parents of a child bad news about a child's health," said Dr. Smith. "Fortunately for nearly every heart problem there is an excellent solution or at least a reasonable solution with a good outlook for the child."

Dr. Smith does stress to parents that if your child does have a heart murmur, it does not mean that something is wrong. There are normal heart murmurs in children and up to 50 % of children may have a heart murmor heard during childhood years.