Heart surgery day after girl's birth helps blood get to lungs

Opal Belk was born with a broken heart.

Just hours after her birth in November, a sharp-eyed nurse noticed that the tips of the chubby-cheeked Burke County girl's fingers were turning blue. Not enough blood was reaching Opal's extremities, and there was little time to waste.

Within hours, the girl was sent to the Medical College of Georgia Children's Medical Center, where a series of tests revealed a missing valve in her pulmonary artery.

Little Opal would have to have open heart surgery.

Congenital heart defects are the most common birth defect in the country and the No. 1 cause of death from birth defects during the first year of life, according to the American Heart Association's Web site.

Each year, nine newborn babies out of every 1,000 will have some kind of heart disorder. Roughly 36,000 babies are born with a defect each year -- about 1 percent of babies in the U.S.

Often, the causes of the problems are a mystery -- an infection, a drug reaction, genetics.

In Opal's case, the valve problem -- called pulmonary atresia -- meant blood could not flow from the right ventricle into the pulmonary artery and on to the lungs, said Dr. Mohsen Karimi, the pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon at the Medical College of Georgia Hospital who operated on Opal.

"Basically, she had no way of getting blood into her lungs," Karimi said.

A day after her birth, the young girl's chest was cut open to mend her walnut-sized heart. Karimi inserted a shunt -- essentially a tube -- to correct the blood flow.

"She has now two sources of pulmonary blood flow," he said. "One is through her native pulmonary artery, which has no valve, and the other one is through the plastic shunt."

Exactly three months to the day after the nurse called attention to Opal's fingertips, Hayley Belk, Opal's mother, gave a telephone interview from her home in the Alexander community near Sardis, Ga.

Belk was changing Opal's diaper, and the girl could be heard in the background, mixed with laughter from Rodney and Hayley Belk's four other children, ages 10, 7, 4 and 2 years old.

Today, Opal is gaining weight and doing great, Hayley Belk said. She had to return to the hospital once because of an infection, but is otherwise normal. Other than some blue traces under her fingernails, the rest of Opal's body has returned to its normal rosy color.

But the memory of her child's surgery is still very fresh in Hayley Belk's mind. And one memory stands out: Before Opal's surgery, a local church gave the child and her mother two small heart-shaped decorations.

"They leave one heart with the child and one with the momma," she said, fighting back tears. "And my heart had a hole in it, a hole in the shape of a heart. And that part was with her. When we were reunited after her surgery we put the two pieces back together. It made all the difference in the world to me, while she was in that surgery, to have that heart to hold onto."

Links:

Read about Pulmonary Atresia here: http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=1303

For more about congenital heart defects visit: http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=12012

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