It's a conundrum facing doctors who specialize in congenital heart health. The specialty used to be considered a pediatric field, since their patients are born with heart defects. But with drastic improvements in treatments and medicine over the last decades, surviving, not dying, has become the norm for patients.
Such pediatric cases are ending up adults, in need of care to keep their hearts from failing them all over again. Mary Frances Betka, age 50, is a pediatric heart surgery patient pioneer, who had a real-life experience with that.
When Mary Frances Betka was born in the 60's, she was what doctors termed a “blue baby”. Her skin was blue-tinted, not pinkish.
Pediatric Cardiologist Dr. Mark Duster explains, “The cause of that was a hole in her heart, and underdevelopment of the pulmonary valve.”
Doctors immediately performed surgery to keep her alive, removing a tumor as well. Still, Mary Frances' parents had to decide between a then-highly risky reparative surgery, or the possibility of living with a barely functioning heart.
Betka says, “My dad will tell you, he was completely torn, one doctor said wait, wait, wait, and another doctor said go, go, go.”
They waited. She lived as a recluse, attending limited school, and going on few play-dates with friends. She wasn't expected to make it past the age of 16. So at age 12, with procedures more advanced, she underwent open heart surgery.
Doctors fixed the hole in her heart, but couldn’t repair the valve. They tried to open it with a gloved finger, the best tool then available.
With the surgery deemed a success, she was able to put most of her heart worries on the back burner.
For the first time, she could do all the activities she’d only imagined. Even climbing stairs was a revelation, since prior to her surgery, someone would have to carry her up or down stairs.
Betka went to college, married, and had her two sons, Alex and Zachary. But unbeknownst to Mary Frances, while she thought her heart was doing fine, in reality, it was suffering from having to compensate in those early years. Enter Dr. Mark Duster in 2002, who spotted problems.
Dr. Duster’s specialty is taking care of people who have an abnormal heart from birth.
While it used to be most of his patients were kids, with increased success rates, those children are living longer so now Dr. Duster sees as many adults as children.
Dr. Duster says, “There are just tremendous advances that are being made daily.”
Dr. Duster recommended immediate heart surgery for Mary Frances, her third, and another doctor concurred. The surgery was performed at the Mayo Clinic in 2002.
Of Dr. Duster, Mary Frances says, “The man's an angel... Through the grace of god and these doctors’ hands, I have made it, and I was given no chance."
Betka is the honoree at the American Heart Association’s Heart Ball, set for Saturday, February 20th, at the Cheyenne Mountain Resort.
KKTV’s Shannon Brinias and Don Ward will be the emcees for the fundraiser.