Written by: Ashley Lawrence
On August 13, 2021, the Texas Center for Pediatric and Congenital Heart Disease, a clinical partnership between UT Health Austin and Dell Children’s Medical Center, performed open-heart surgery on its 1,000th patient, 5-year-old Mason Willers, who was born with a partial atrioventricular septal defect, or as Mason’s dad, Paul Willers, describes it, “a Swiss cheese heart.”
A partial atrioventricular septal defect is a heart defect in which a hole exists between the left and right upper chambers of the heart and the valve between the left chambers does not close completely, which allows oxygen-rich and oxygen-poor blood to mix and can affect how the heart and lungs develop.
“The children can have problems with growth; they can have problems with their activity levels, but eventually they can have heart failure problems,” explains Charles Fraser, Jr., MD, who serves as the Chief of Pediatric and Congenital Heart Surgery for the Texas Center for Pediatric and Congenital Heart Disease and leads a team of over 200 other surgeons, doctors, nurses, and support staff.
Mason’s parents have been preparing for Mason’s surgery since they learned about their son’s heart defect when Mason’s mother, Susan Mims, was approximately 18 to 20 weeks pregnant.
“I think any time you think about your kids’ chests being opened up, their hearts stopped, heart cut into, I mean, these things just are your worst nightmare as a parent, or one of your worst nightmares,” says Paul Willers.
Mason and his family are from a small town near Victoria, Texas and traveled over two hours to receive care from the Texas Center for Pediatric and Congenital Heart Disease at Dell Children’s, which has grown significantly over the past three years.
“We were scheduled [for surgery] the day before and there was some other child that needed more urgent surgery,” explains Paul Willers. “Then we ended up in the 1,000th case,” said Paul Willers.
Despite the unique challenges healthcare professionals around the world have faced due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Texas Center for Pediatric and Congenital Heart Disease continues to work with patients and families to ensure they are receiving the highest level of specialized care.
“It’s been relentless. It’s already hard enough to take care of someone’s child with heart disease, but to have the overlay of a disease which we’re still learning about, and there’s a lot that’s been demystified in a good sense, but it’s been frightening,” shares Dr. Fraser.
Since the Texas Center for Pediatric and Congenital Heart Disease was established in September 2018, the heart center has achieved several major milestones, including opening the first cardiac care unit in Central Texas in June 2019, successfully implanting the first mechanical heart device in a pediatric patient in Central Texas in September 2019, launching the first pediatric heart transplant program in Central Texas in July 2020, successfully performing the first pediatric heart transplant in Central Texas in October 2020, and more.