The Tiniest Hearts Need Special Care

The Tiniest Hearts Need Special Care

As one of six state-designated perinatal centers, Phoebe cares for the sickest babies in a 22-county region. Access to specialists is a crucial piece of the equation. Enter Justin “Mac” Vining, MD, of Georgia Regents University, and Benjamin Toole, MD, of Sibley Heart Center Cardiology. Board-certified in pediatrics and pediatric cardiology, they are the first dedicated pediatric cardiologists to practice in Southwest Georgia.

“Albany is central to Southwest Georgia making it easier for me to follow patients from other areas,” says Dr. Vining. “That way I get to see them more often.” The specialists’ presence is invaluable to families with sick children who would otherwise have to travel to Atlanta or Augusta for care. Bowen Kilby is one such child. Born in Augusta last March with a long list of heart problems and coinciding medical challenges, he underwent a myriad of appointments with doctors from Augusta to Atlanta. Dr. Vining, then practicing at Georgia Regents University, was one of them.

Following a cardiac catheterization at the age of three months, Bowen was initially slated for surgery. Subsequent appointments at Egleston put the brakes on surgery, with the main concern being a deformed valve that didn’t allow blood to flow properly.

“The doctors had only seen one other patient in Bowen’s condition,” said mom Lyndsey Kilby. “They said they wanted to wait and see what this kid could do.’”

Imagine the Kilby’s relief when, after moving to Valdosta last fall, they realized Dr. Vining had begun seeing patients in the Phoebe Pediatric Specialty Clinic in Albany. “It’s a lot easier than traveling to Augusta!” says Mrs. Kilby, of her son’s monthly appointments.

The goal is for Bowen to wait for surgery until he is two, as replacement valves for children under the age of two do not currently exist. The replacement valves will then need to be changed as the child grows, which means Bowen is facing additional surgeries at age five, in his early teens, and again at age 18.

“It’s a very frustrating problem when you have this kind of heart disease,” says Dr. Vining, who began practicing full time in Albany six months ago. “You wait and wait and wait until they grow. Then when we replace the valves, they are typically outgrown. With an adult, it’s basically one and done.”

Phoebe Pediatric Specialty Clinic is just one of several efforts underway to diagnose and treat children with heart conditions in Southwest Georgia. New technology is being used to detect heart defects in infants born at Phoebe Putney. All newborns are now being tested for the seven critical congenital heart defects found, on average, in eight of 1,000 births at Phoebe.

“The pulse oximetry test monitors oxygen saturation levels that could indicate a defect,” said Dr. Vining. “This test allows us to readily diagnose babies with chronic heart disease, where at smaller hospitals it may have been overlooked.”

If a problem is found, intervention begins immediately and could include a pediatric echocardiogram – an ultrasound of the heart. Kyle Crenshaw, manager of non-invasive cardiovascular services at Phoebe, says three of the department’s pediatric technicians received specialized training at Mayo Clinic to perform the pediatric echocardiograms.

“Because we now have dedicated pediatric cardiologists on staff, it is crucial that our techs receive additional training in pathology. This training prepares them for the more complex heart disease cases that once would’ve gone to Atlanta or other cities for care,” Crenshaw explains.

Currently, there are efforts to pass a state law requiring hospitals to perform the pulse oximetry testing routinely in order to timely diagnose and treat more newborns. This standard was implemented at Phoebe many months ago.

Photos: Bowen Kilby, a Valdosta patient of Dr. Vining, is able to see his doctor in Albany rather than making the four-hour drive to Augusta.


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