Local child's heart defect inspires state study

Special Photo: Wyatt Hatcher, 3, is doing well following a heart transplant.

Special Photo: Wyatt Hatcher, 3, is doing well following a heart transplant.

COVINGTON - Jessica Hatcher's 3-year-old son Wyatt is alive today because doctors discovered he had a heart defect while he was still in the womb.

Now Hatcher is working to make sure every child gets the chance at life her son has.

The Newton County mom of three has been a driving force behind an effort to require pulse oximetry screenings for every newborn in the state of Georgia.

Pulse oximetry screenings measure the blood oxygen level and heart rate by placing a small device on a newborn's toe or finger. The test takes less than a minute and is painless.

"It's a very inexpensive, very easy test for a baby," Hatcher said.

Prenatal ultrasounds and clinical exams identify less than one half of all cases of congenital heart defects. Pulse oximetry screenings are more effective at detecting critical heart conditions that are often missed during routine examinations. That's why Hatcher doesn't understand why the test isn't mandatory for newborns before they are discharged from the hospital.

Hatcher's son was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a condition in which the left side of the heart is not completely developed. Because Hatcher's husband Kevin was born with a congenital heart defect, she was given prenatal testing during all three of her pregnancies. If that testing hadn't occurred, she doesn't know if doctors would have diagnosed Wyatt after his birth, as he exhibited no symptoms. That's why pulse oximetry screening is so important, she said.

"It can give them a much better quality of care if things are known about ahead of time," she said.

While larger hospitals run pulse oximetry screenings on newborns, most outside the metro area do not, Hatcher said. The test is a standard part of triage care for adults.

Hatcher successfully petitioned Rep. Andy Welch, R-McDonough, and other state elected officials to sponsor a bill requiring that the Department of Public Health study whether pulse oximetry screening should be a standard test for newborns.

House Bill 745 passed the House by a vote of 135 to 26 on Monday and will now head to the Senate floor.

Officials were hesitant to require a mandate right now due to the associated costs, she said. The cost per child for the screening, adding in the cost of potential EKG and/or Echocardiogram if the test detects a critical heart condition, is around $4 per child. But Hatcher is hopeful a mandate will follow the health department's study, which is due to be reported to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and House Committee on Health and Human Services during the 2013 session.

Congenital heart disease affects seven to nine of every 1,000 live births in America and Europe, according to the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Advisory Committee on Heritable Disorders in Newborns and Children. Congenital heart defects are the leading cause of infant death due to birth defects, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

During a recent committee hearing, a cardiologist from Sibley Cardiology testified that every year in Georgia, 350 children die from undiagnosed heart defects, enough to fill two 747 airplanes. Pulse oximetry testing is recommended by the American Heart Association and American Academy of Pediatrics.

"I just would like people to know this is something we should already be doing. This is something we have the technology to do ... We should use that technology to make sure every kid has a chance," Hatcher said.

Wyatt's early diagnosis gave the Hatchers time to decide on treatment options. Doctors gave them three choices: Let their baby live as long as he could, likely only days; perform surgeries which might allow him to live through his teen years, at which time he'd receive a heart transplant; or perform an immediate heart transplant.

The Hatchers chose the surgeries, though they didn't get Wyatt much beyond his first year of life.

At about age 1, Wyatt showed symptoms of being sick -- a bad cough and vomiting. After four rounds of antibiotics failed to yield recovery, doctors suggested further testing. Wyatt suffered from congestive heart failure. Doctors placed him on a waiting list for a new heart.

After six months of waiting, Wyatt underwent a heart transplant on Sept. 17, 2010, at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta's Sibley Heart Center, where he spent 10 days in recovery.

"He is doing good. We are over a year post transplant now. We've had some ups and downs," Hatcher said.

The heart won't last forever; eventually Wyatt's body will reject the organ. Doctors predict the heart will last 10 to 20 years, although Hatcher is hanging onto the hope that advancements in medical technology will be discovered to make it perform longer. A second transplant is an option.

"Ten or 20 years ago they would have told me to take my baby home and enjoy what (time) I had," she said. "Just that recent. The way things are going, who knows what will be available 10 to 20 years from now."

Hatcher is determined to find meaning in Wyatt's struggle to survive, to use what she's learned to help other children. The House's recent approval of the study bill is a good start, she said.

"I'm just very excited that it's reached this point and very hopeful that it can go further. Now that it's passed the House, hopefully it will get some more attention and people will be able to realize what it is and understand how important it is," she said.

Features Editor Karen Rohr contributed to this story.