Yung at Heart: Understanding Congenital Heart Disease

During the month of February, we celebrate Heart Month at Children’s of Alabama by highlighting advancements in care and technology at the Pediatric and Congenital Heart Center of Alabama. This partnership between Children’s and the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) brings together more than 250 team members who focus solely on the care of children with heart disease. From the time a baby is diagnosed, even before birth, a plan for that child’s care is developed.

As Division Director of Pediatric Cardiology, Dr. Yung Lau and his team follow patients from birth until the transition to adult care. Recent partnerships and advancements in technology help to save lives in schools, monitor patients from afar and operate using less-invasive techniques.

While children can suffer from heart disease, it differs from heart disease in adults.

Poor lifestyle choices, an unhealthy diet and lack of exercise all impact the development of heart disease in adults.

Congenital heart disease is not dependent on external factors, but rather results from a defect that is typically present at birth. Heart disease is the end outcome.

“A normal, healthy heart has four chambers and two big blood vessels that extend to the lungs and the rest of the body,” explains Dr. Yung Lau, director of the division of pediatric cardiology at Children’s of Alabama and professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “Children with congenital heart disease experience abnormalities, which can occur in any of the chambers, walls, or blood vessels of the heart.”

Some children are born with too few chambers. Others are born with weaknesses or holes in the tissue between those chambers.

“There are very, very few patients in which we feel as though there is nothing that can be done,” reassures Dr. Lau. “Most of them are able to undergo operations or procedures on the heart that allow the child to survive and grow into a fully functioning adult.”

Early Detection & Treatment

Some heart defects can be diagnosed prenatally via ultrasound.

Together, cardiologists and maternal fetal specialists evaluate these patients for diagnosis. Then, it’s time to plan for any interventions needed at birth. Treatment can begin within 15 minutes of birth.

Surgery may take place within the first week of life. Premature babies might need more time to grow to a size where surgery is possible.

Teen Diagnosis

Not all congenital heart conditions are caught at birth. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy occurs when an improperly formed heart predisposes one to a dangerous heart rhythm. This condition may not manifest until later on in life.

The existence of such a condition is why physicals before athletic participation are so important.

“One of the most important questions we ask in the screening prior to participation in athletics is family history,” says Dr. Lau. 

Family history of seizures or fainting, suspicious accidents that could be the result of a heart issue, or a sudden death before age 50 are all clues. 

Treatment Advancements

Fortunately, advancements are constantly being made to improve treatment for congenital heart issues. 

In some cases, patients no longer have to undergo open heart surgery to get a new valve. New devices are being developed to bridge between heart failure and a heart transplant. 

There are even means of monitoring ICU patients at Children’s of Alabama that rewind 24 hours for better diagnosis.

“Our surgeons continue to do innovative operations,” explains Dr. Lau. “They are constantly looking at new ways to treat and improve congenital heart issues.” 

*To listen to an interview with Dr. Yung Lau, professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Director of the Division of Pediatric Cardiology, please follow this link: