Maya’s mother, Deborah Miller, remembers what it was like to touch her daughter’s small chest. “You couldn’t feel a heartbeat. All you could feel was this rush of blood,” she recalls.
It was December 2004. Deborah and her husband, Mike, were in China adopting a daughter, one who matched the request they had made of the adoption agency for a special needs child, even one with a heart condition. “She was our Christmas present,” Deborah says.
Limited medical information on Maya had arrived before the Millers left their home in suburban Atlanta. When they faxed the information to pediatric cardiologist Dr. Robert Vincent, at the Sibley Heart Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, he had offered hope. Based on the information, Dr. Vincent told them he thought Maya’s heart problem, PDA (or patent ductus arteriosus) could be fixed.
The ductus arteriosus is a special vessel in the heart that, before birth, supplies the baby with oxygen from the mother. In the weeks after birth, the vessel closes in the vast majority of children. If it remains open (patent), serious conditions can develop.
When the Millers arrived in China, Maya was already 33 months old, but she weighed just 20 pounds - about the size of a typical 18-month-old. Abandoned and placed in an orphanage at age 1½, Maya had never been treated for her heart condition.
Back home, the Millers quickly arranged for Maya to see Dr. Vincent. An echocardiogram, a tool to let doctors see the heart, confirmed that Maya had a large PDA and an enlarged heart - the size of an adult’s. “Without treatment, she was at high risk for heart failure,” says Deborah.
Three weeks later, Dr. Vincent performed a procedure to close Maya’s PDA. “She was away from us for just 45 minutes, and the only way we could tell she had had a procedure was the two needle prick holes on her thigh and a Band-aid over them,” recalls Deborah. “But for the first time I could feel her heart beat, not the rush of blood in her chest.”
During the procedure, Dr. Vincent inserted two small, flexible tubes into a large artery and vein in her leg. He then guided the tube, which doctors call a catheter, through the arteries to her heart. With the catheter in place, he delivered a device through the catheter to the heart to close the PDA.
“It was a life-saving procedure that took a short amount of time,” recalls Deborah. After her treatment, Maya’s heart began to shrink and, about a year ago, an echocardiogram showed it to be about normal size. Meanwhile, Maya’s body grew. She gained more than three inches and 10 pounds in the nine months after the procedure. “She went through clothes sizes so fast,” says Deborah.
Today, Maya is a 5½-year-old kindergartner in “perfect health,” says her mother. And, about a year ago, she became a big sister, too. The Millers adopted William, also from China and also in need of special care, to be Maya’s little brother.According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, PDA affects about 3,000 infants each year in the United States. It is the sixth most common heart defect. Fortunately, there are three options for closing the PDA.