Health & Medicine

‘Nothing has held her back.’ New way to patch hearts at Sutter leads to faster healing

What’s it feel like to see your 3-year-old go in for open heart surgery?

Lana Avila describes her daughter's experience and a Sutter Health cardiologist talks about the first minimally-invasive open-heart surgery, performed in May, in the United States.
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Lana Avila describes her daughter's experience and a Sutter Health cardiologist talks about the first minimally-invasive open-heart surgery, performed in May, in the United States.

A Sutter Health doctor in Sacramento could be the first in the nation that trades open-chest surgery for a minimally-invasive technique to correct congenital defects in the heart.

“Here, we don’t have to split the bone, we just kind of sneak in,” explained Sutter Sacramento pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Naruhito Watanabe.

Traditionally, an open-heart surgery requires a surgeon to open the chest and break the sternum. But with this new approach, known as a mini-thoracotomy, only a small incision under the armpit is needed. The procedure allows for a faster recovery and leaves behind a more discreet scar.

Three-year-old Taneigha Avila, who was born with an atrial septal defect, is the second of Watanabe’s patients to undergo the surgery. Individuals born with this defect have a hole in the dividing wall between the two upper chambers of their hearts.

Nearly three months after surgery, Taneigha is considered fully recovered and has no additional surgeries planned. Watanabe called her outlook “perfect.”

“We knew exactly what was going to happen going in,” said Taneigha’s mom, Lana Avila. “If I knew then what I know now, having watched her recovery time and seeing how well she did, I would have worried less.”

Both Lana and Matt Avila, Taneigha’s dad, said they were nervous for their daughter going into the surgery.

“We didn’t know the morning of the surgery how they were going to be able to do it,” Matt Avila said. “It was still 50/50 whether they were going to be able to go through her chest or in through the side, so that was a real last-minute decision.”

Lana Avila said they had hoped doctors would be able to perform the under-the-arm surgery “because it was less invasive” and “recovery time was going to be cut in half.”

Although the surgery is a new approach in the United States, Watanabe explained it’s been used in parts of Europe and Brazil for several years. And while the entry point is different, the surgery is essentially the same: a “patch” is placed over the hole in a patient’s heart. In Taneigha’s case, tissue was taken from the membrane around her heart and a piece of that membrane was used as a patch.

“It’s all-natural her,” said Matt Avila. “There’s nothing artificial in her.”

Watanabe now has plans to use the surgical approach to treat other types of congenital heart defects.

Dr. Jennifer Thomas, the director of Clinical-Behavioral Health Services and the chief psychologist at the Sutter Center for Psychiatry, said that – along with a push to make scars more “empowering” – the technique can help individuals focus less on their scars and more on their futures.

Lana Avila describes the small scar under her daughter’s right armpit as a “badge of honor.”

“We’re proud of the scar,” she said. “It shows that you’ve lived through something and survived it.”

Since May, Taneigha has recovered quickly. According to her parents, she’s back to gymnastics, which she loves, and happy and healthy as ever.

“Nothing has held her back,” Lana Avila said. “She’s just been like she was before.”

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