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In medicine we often refer to the “natural history of disease”— the normal course that a disease takes in an individual if no treatment occurs. In the case of congenital heart disease, the “natural history” was often death or, at best, survival with significant limitations. Fortunately, that history has changed.

Over the past 70 years, innovations developed by physicians, clinical researchers, engineers, and basic scientists have transformed the care of children with heart disease and made life-saving interventions not only possible but routine at hospitals like ours. New surgical techniques and medical therapies, some of which were developed here at Stanford University School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, have evolved and greatly improved outcomes for children with almost every type of congenital heart disease.

Today in the Children’s Heart Center, our survival rates following almost all cardiac surgical procedures are at 98 percent, effectively eliminating the poor outcomes that were once the natural history of these common birth defects. With a team of over 250 highly specialized physicians, nurses, and staff, and through our close ties to the School of Medicine and its outstanding research capabilities, we are changing history and shaping a brighter future.

Beyond survival alone, the goal of our care is now to ensure an excellent overall outcome — from normal brain function for even the most fragile patients, to the ability for children to perform well in school and to exercise and enjoy an active life into adulthood. In the Children’s Heart Center, our physicians, nurses, and researchers are dedicated to achieving this possibility for the children and families we treat. In partnership with our colleagues in the Johnson Center for Pregnancy and Newborn Services, we have bolstered our capabilities for diagnosing cardiac diseases using advanced imaging techniques long before babies are born. With prenatal diagnosis, our team can provide optimal planning for care at and shortly after birth, and treat some babies even before they are delivered. Furthermore, as more children survive with congenital heart disease, we are now looking at lifespan care — bringing together the resources needed to provide state-of-the-art, comprehensive care to our patients from prenatal diagnosis all the way through adulthood.

In 2017, the much-needed expansion of our hospital will open, allowing us to provide our high-quality, family-centered cardiac care and unsurpassed outcomes to more kids in the Bay Area and beyond. And along with growth in the number of patients and families we serve, we plan to expand our clinical, translational, and basic science research capabilities by recruiting more nationally recognized researchers such as Heart Center faculty members Sushma Reddy, MD, Alison Marsden, PhD, and Doff McElhinney, MD, who are each making important contributions to further advance the entire field.

Donor support has been critical to the success of the Children’s Heart Center since its creation in 2001, and with continued, strong support from the philanthropic community, we aim to lead our field forward through innovations in the areas of cardiovascular bioengineering, genetics, regenerative medicine, ventricular assist device development, and bioinformatics that will further improve the lives of our patients.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Lucile Packard Children's News.

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