Mending Ben's Heart

Children's of Alabama Celebrates Kids' Heart Health This February


Ben Golden Peterson was among the first patients to undergo heart surgery when the Joseph S. Bruno Pediatric Heart Center opened at Children’s of Alabama in 2012. Post-surgery, he was diagnosed with cancer. Today, Ben is an energetic first grader who loves playing baseball and showing off his favorite Fortnite dance moves.

Ben’s story proves that heart disease doesn’t affect just adults. For children in need of specialized cardiovascular care, families can turn to the experts at Children’s of Alabama, one of the largest pediatric cardiovascular programs in the Southeast.

Ben's Story

Four weeks after his birth, Ben was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the heart becomes enlarged and cannot pump blood effectively. While some infants with cardiomyopathy may go years without the need for a heart transplant, Ben wasn’t so fortunate. His condition grew progressively worse after his diagnosis and he was in grave danger of dying before doctors could locate an appropriate donor.

But after 39 days, a heart became available in California. It was a monumental day not only for Ben and his family, but also Children’s and the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). The cardiovascular services team had recently moved into the Joseph S. Bruno Pediatric Heart Center in the new, state-of-the-art Benjamin Russell Hospital for Children, streamlining the pathway of care for children like Ben.

Ben’s surgery and recovery was not without challenges; it took six hours for the donor heart to arrive from the West Coast. “The combination of these factors – a donor from a great distance, the surgery occurring so soon after the move to Children’s, the heart immediately functioning perfectly and the child experiencing no immunologic rejection or infection problems – all of that together really was quite miraculous,” said James K. Kirklin, M.D., retired professor and former director of the UAB Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Children’s.

“The nurses, physicians, and intensivists at Children’s managed this as if they had been doing it every year for the last 10 years,” Kirklin said. “It was absolutely spectacular.”

There were hiccups post-surgery. Ben was diagnosed with intussusception, the most common cause of intestinal obstruction in children between the ages of 3 months and 3 years old, and post-transplant lymphoproliferative disorder (PTLD), the most common cause of cancer after solid organ transplant. Ben underwent several rounds of chemotherapy at Children’s and is now cancer free. He checks in with this Children’s doctors every six months to monitor his progress.

Ben’s parents, Laura and Isaac, are in awe of their son. He’s a miracle, they say, and so are the physicians, nurses and staff at Children’s. “Once we got rid of the cancer, he’s better than ever,” Laura said. “As hard as the journey has been, Children’s eased every step. “We’re at a really happy place right now and we continue to be beyond grateful for what Children’s has done.”

“Heart Hospital Within a Hospital” 

The heart team at Children’s of Alabama provides pediatric cardiac care for more than 12,000 patients a year. Staff performed more than 700 cardiac catheterizations and electrophysiology procedures and more than 450 cardiovascular surgeries in 2018. From 2015-2018, there have been 35 heart transplants. The center includes 20 private CVICU rooms, 16 private CCU rooms, two cardiovascular operating rooms and two catheterization labs.

“We are proud of the collaborative multidisciplinary partnership that has developed among the cardiologists, cardiac intensivists, CV anesthesiologists and CV surgeons in the delivery of patient and family-centered care,” said Division Director Yung Lau, M.D. a pediatric cardiologist at Children’s and UAB. “Our team of more than 250 dedicated professionals who work at the Pediatric and Congenital Heart Center of Alabama are committed to providing world-class cardiac care for our patients.”

This “heart hospital within a hospital” represents a five-decade tradition of superior cardiovascular clinical care and research dedicated solely to children. This single platform of care also includes nurses, social workers, child life specialists, counselors, nutritionists, occupational and physical therapists and chaplains. 

Heart defects are the most common birth defects, and most heart defects have no known cause. Congenital heart disease (CHD) affects about 40,000 births per year in the United States, or about one percent of all births. CHD kills more children each year than all the cancers combined and is the top killer of children born with developmental abnormalities. Survival of infants with CHD and other congenital defects depends on how severe the defect is, when it is diagnosed and how it is treated.

Since 1911, Children’s of Alabama has provided specialized medical care for ill and injured children, offering inpatient and outpatient services throughout central Alabama. Ranked among the best pediatric medical centers in the nation by U.S. News & World Report, Children’s provided care for youngsters from every county in Alabama, 42 other states and seven foreign countries last year, representing more than 677,000 outpatient visits and more than 15,000 inpatient admissions. With more than 2 million square feet, Children’s is one of the largest pediatric medical facilities in the United States. More information is available at childrensal.org.

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