Fewer than 20,000 children are born each year with Tetralogy of Fallot, a condition marked by four major heart defects: ventricular septal defect, or a hole in the two lower chambers of the heart; a narrowing of the pulmonary valve and main pulmonary artery; malaligned aortic valve; and ventricular hypertrophy, or thickening, of the right ventricle. These children often need surgery soon after birth and a pulmonary valve replacement by the time they’re adolescents or young adults.
In the past, that meant another open-heart surgery and time spent on cardiopulmonary bypass, which carries significant risks of complications; a week or more in the hospital; scarring; weeks of recovery at home; and a low but real risk of death. In addition, because the children have already had major heart surgery, scar tissue from the previous procedure makes the valve replacement even more difficult.
In July 2021, however, interventional cardiologist William McMahon, M.D., and his colleague Mark Law, M.D., together with the Pediatric Cardiac Catheterization Lab team at Children’s of Alabama, snaked a catheter device through a vein in a 16-year-old girl’s leg up to her heart and replaced the valve. She went home the next day with just a small scar on her leg that will eventually become invisible.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration had just approved the device, called the Harmony transcatheter pulmonary valve, in March. Drs. McMahon and Law were the first cardiology specialists in a 10-state region to use it. While similar devices have been available for pulmonary valve replacement, few children with Tetralogy of Fallot qualified because of their previous surgeries. Now, Dr. McMahon estimates that four out of five children with the condition will qualify.
The new procedure is a game-changer, he said. “We have many patients who live in fear of that surgery because they’ve been told they need another open-heart surgery since they were 8 or 10. We certainly have some patients who reasonably don’t want to do it and some who put it off. That becomes a problem because it means their heart is working harder.”
Dr. McMahon says the advantages to the Harmony device are obvious: “There’s a quicker recovery; lower risk of major complications and death; and they’re able to get on with their lives sooner.” The team has completed 10 procedures so far with no complications other than some arrhythmia that resolved with treatment.
Some patients returned to work or school three days after the procedure. And while the valve won’t last forever, Dr. McMahon expects a new valve could be inserted within the old one in the same manner. “That’s the overall goal of these valves,” he said. “To reduce the total number of heart surgeries that our patients need during their lifetime.”