Abigail Morgan’s mama and daddy knew early on she’d need heart surgery to repair life-threatening defects.
But when the 2-year-old was wheeled into surgery Nov. 10 at the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s Batson Children’s Hospital, what would normally be a terrifying experience for Michelle and Seth Morgan was much less traumatic. That’s because their only child’s chest would not be opened by sawing through the sternum, standard procedure for closing a hole between the collecting chambers (atria) in a child’s heart and repairing her mitral valve.
Instead, Dr. Ali Dodge-Khatami used an approach that has been performed in only a handful of centers internationally, gaining access to her heart by making an incision underneath her right arm to close the hole with a patch and repair her leaking mitral valve.
“What we do inside the heart is exactly the same thing as we do through the front, where 99 percent of surgeons do it,” said Dodge-Khatami, professor of surgery in the division of pediatric and congenital heart surgery.
Not only will Abigail avoid a long scar running down her chest, but her recovery time will be much quicker. “It’s covered almost entirely by the right arm,” Dodge-Khatami said of the surgical scar. “No one can tell the child has had open heart surgery.”
After the surgery, Abigail’s parents said, they were in awe when first allowed to see her – and more amazed as the day continued.
Abigail with her grandmother, Georgia resident Kathy Burton
“We expected her to have a breathing tube in. We expected lots of tubes,” said Michelle Morgan of Biloxi. “But when she was wheeled into the ICU, there was no breathing tube. There was color in her face. We didn’t expect her to be alert.
“In two hours, she was watching Frozen,” her mom said, referring to the blockbuster Disney movie.
Credit that quick turnaround in part to the fact that “we didn’t have to cut through her breast bone, but instead went between two ribs,” Dodge-Khatami said. “The kids can be spontaneously breathing much more quickly. This child came off the ventilator in the operating room and was sitting up in bed the day of the surgery and sipping water.”
“This beautiful little girl doesn’t have to have a scar on her chest for life,” said Dr. Jorge Salazar, professor of surgery and chief of cardiothoracic surgery, who co-directs the Children’s Heart Center with Dr. Mary Taylor.
“Dr. Dodge-Khatami played a major role in bringing this procedure to the attention of the international community,” Salazar said. “It’s very cutting-edge for pediatric heart surgery worldwide, and we don’t compromise on the quality of the repair.”
Abigail left the ICU for a regular room the day after surgery. A talkative and precocious little girl with blonde pigtails, she went home on Thursday morning after having surgery Monday– that, after letting her parents know for days that she’d rather be running around than stuck in a bed.
“Never did I think we’d be having heart surgery on a Monday and be home before the weekend,” Michelle Morgan said. “Part of the reason I haven’t felt so nervous and anxious is because she’s in such good health. She easily went into her nurse’s arms to go back to surgery. I felt like she was in such good hands.”
Said Seth Morgan, an airman first class at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi: “It’s good to have the extra two or three days of being able to recover more quickly.”
Even though he approached Abigail’s heart through the incision under her right arm, “the risks involved are absolutely the same, being very low,” Dodge-Khatami said. “The most important thing is that this offers the same quality of repair of the heart defects, but avoids a visible scar on the front of the chest. It allows the kids to leave the ICU and hospital more quickly so that they can go back to being kids again.”
Michelle and Seth Morgan didn’t hesitate.
If Abigail hadn’t had the 2- to 3-hour surgery “before she was a teen, she would have gone into heart failure,” Dodge-Khatami said. “Her heart would have dilated and failed, and she would have been a transplant candidate. So, we try to do this during infancy or definitely before the child is school-aged. Once we’ve done the surgery, they can go on to live a completely normal life.”
Dodge-Khatami said he learned the rare procedure in Zurich in his native Switzerland, where he served as a staff pediatric cardiovascular surgeon at University Children’s Hospital from 2003-08. He came to UMMC in 2013; before that, he was professor of cardiovascular surgery, chief of pediatric cardiac surgery and head of the congenital heart program at the University of Hamburg School of Medicine in Hamburg, Germany.
“I’m not the first one to do the surgery, but probably no other center in the United States does these procedures from the side," Dodge-Khatami said. "My ex-chief in Zurich pioneered expanding the indications for performing more complex open heart repairs from the side, something I picked up in Switzerland 10 years ago.
“You can’t do every single surgery from the side. You have to select which ones are possible from the side, and which are not,” Dodge-Khatami said. But with the same type surgery, he said, “we can also do more complex repairs, such as working on valves and closing holes between two ventricles.”
UMMC nurse practitioner Keli Ballard lets 2-year-old Abigail Morgan of Biloxi listen to her heart during a checkup exactly one week after the toddler's heart repair
Although the surgery performed is innovative, Abigail’s heart defects are very common, Dodge-Khatami and Salazar said. “We’re pushing the envelope here in a very safe way to provide better care,” Salazar said. “She had two problems, and we were able to fix both in the same operation, in a minimally invasive way that had the least impact on her, both physically and emotionally.”
Expect more referrals leading to more procedures at the Children’s Heart Center once word gets out to the national and international pediatric heart communities, the doctors say.
Abigail’s surgery was the second performed by Dodge-Khatami at UMMC, with a third just days later.
“She likes to climb on stuff. She really enjoys books, and she likes to look at pictures of herself,” Michelle Morgan said.
Her parents are confident her future holds lots of possibilities.
“She was born during the Olympics,” Seth Morgan said. “The sport on TV at the time was beach volleyball. So, maybe she will play beach volleyball!”