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Girl's Heart Recovers While on Cardiac Transplant List

May 31, 2011

EDMONTON – A four-year-old Winnipeg girl finally goes home Wednesday after spending nearly two years at Stollery Children’s Hospital where an artificial pediatric heart kept her alive long enough for her natural heart to heal.

To date, Sophie Upton is the longest-standing pediatric patient in North America who has been kept alive on a Berlin Heart, a device that uses an external pump to perform heart function. It’s used for children awaiting a heart transplant or recovering from heart failure

At the age of two, Sophie was diagnosed with blood cancer and underwent chemotherapy. A Winnipeg cardiology team determined the left side of her heart was badly damaged following the chemo and transferred her to Stollery Children’s Hospital. In 2009, doctors implanted a Berlin Heart in her and Sophie went on the cardiac transplant list.

While Sophie waited at the Stollery for a donor heart to become available, doctors monitored the function of her damaged heart on a regular basis. Earlier this month, doctors determined Sophie’s heart had healed and she underwent an operation to remove the Berlin Heart and restore her natural heart function.

“She was extremely lucky that her heart was able to heal itself after being on the Berlin Heart for that length of time; it truly is a miracle,” says Dr. Holger Buchholz, director of the Pediatric Artificial Heart Program at Stollery Children’s Hospital.

According to medical literature, about five per cent of patients on the Berlin Heart can be successfully weaned off the device and, in most of these cases, the heart heals itself between three and five months.

Dr. Buchholz is amazed by Sophie’s full recovery, despite the fact she was waiting for a heart transplant since July 2010. Although Edmonton transplant teams performed nine pediatric heart transplants in 2010, eight children died on the waiting list.

“Sophie’s case illustrates the ever-growing need for organ and tissue donation, with transplant waiting lists continuing to grow while the donation rate remains unchanged,” says Dr. Buchholz.
Sophie and her parents, Edward and Ning, are looking forward to going home.

“We’re going to be transferred from the Stollery to the Winnipeg Children’s Hospital. We’re looking forward to meeting the health care professionals there,” says Ning, “Sophie will be closer to family; she can go to kindergarten and live a normal life.”

Dr. Buchholz says health teams in two provinces scripted this happy ending.

“This case is a good example of the collaboration between Winnipeg and Edmonton cardiology teams working together as part of the Western Canadian Children’s Heart Network to deliver the best possible outcome for the patient,” he says.

With a referral base of more than 1.7 million, the Stollery cares for children from central and northern Alberta, NWT, as well as parts of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia.
Alberta Health Services is the provincial health authority responsible for planning and delivering health supports and services for more than 3.7 million adults and children living in Alberta. Its mission is to provide a patient-focused, quality health system that is accessible and sustainable for all Albertans.

Great news! Just as the June issue of Hero came off the press, our “cover girl” Sophie was coming out of surgery where her Berlin Heart was removed. There was always a chance that her own heart would heal if given time, and it did. After spending 20 months in the Stollery, Sophie is now home in Winnipeg with her parents, Ed and Ning, enjoying the life of a typical four-year-old. She loves to head to the park where she swings, cruises down the slide, and can run free after being restricted by medical equipment for so many months. In a recent telephone conversation, Ed asked us to pass along a very important reminder, “When things look bad, remember that they can get better quickly.” In just two months, Sophie’s Berlin Heart was removed, she healed well, headed home to Winnipeg, and is riding her bike down the pathways. It’s a great message of hope and healing. These are the times we cherish. When we get reports back from mom and dad to let us know the wonderful progress a child released from the Stollery is making. None of us know what the future will hold, but what we do know is that because of donors who want to help ensure the Stollery is a centre of excellence for treating children, that Sophie is here . . . breeze blowing through her hair, laughing, and loving every moment of life.