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Heart month: Celebrating big changes for tiny hearts

Published by , on Feb 19, 2015

Last week on Facebook, we introduced you to 5-month-old Kaylee, a CHoR heart patient who was able to return home four days after undergoing surgery to repair a hole in her heart – just in time for Valentine’s Day. As we celebrate this heart-themed month, and heart patients like Kaylee, we also celebrate the $28 million gift Children’s Hospital Foundation has pledged to advance pediatric heart surgery in Central Virginia through the development of the Children’s Hospital Foundation Heart Center at CHoR.


Dr. Tom Yeh, director, Children’s Hospital Foundation Heart Center

The center’s director, Dr. Thomas Yeh, is a senior board-certified pediatric heart surgeon with nearly 20 years of surgical experience, including thousands of successful pediatric heart surgeries. He was recruited specifically for his experience, surgical outcomes and impressive training – Dr. Yeh is now the most experienced pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon in Virginia. His patients’ families will also tell you he’s one of the kindest and most compassionate.

With Dr. Yeh’s recruitment, and Children’s Hospital Foundation’s unprecedented gift, CHoR is standing-up a robust heart program to care for any cardiac need a child might have around the clock. Heart programs form cornerstones of great children’s hospitals – raising the level of expertise and providing a complete lineup of specialists. From fetal cardiology and interventional cardiac catheterization, to cardiac surgery and transplant, the Children’s Hospital Foundation Heart Center can now ensure that children with congenital and acquired heart disease receive the care they need to thrive into and throughout adulthood. In his remarks from the major gift announcement this past December, Dr. Yeh shares his vision for this new pediatric cardiac surgery program and what it means for families in Virginia.

Caring for children comes from the heart

Excerpt from Dr. Yeh’s Dec. 2014 remarks at the majorgift announcement event

There’s no reason a city the size of Richmond should not offer her sickest children heart surgery. Until today, that need was not fully met, and many families were forced to leave their hometown for care. If you haven’t considered exactly what that means…bear with me and I’ll make it real for you. I hope your family never needs me or the Children’s Hospital Foundation Heart Center, but imagine, as a new mom or dad, you’ve just been told your new baby needs heart surgery. One in one hundred new families will receive that news. Now imagine, at the most stressful moment of your life, you’re also told that Richmond can’t handle it. You’re going to have to leave your home, uproot your child, yourselves and leave your support system to get it done. That doesn’t seem right for Richmond. It never has. But in that instant…your ears still burning…protective instincts racing…everything you used to think was important…fades. It fades around the face of the child who is squirming because you’re holding him just a little tighter now. And even though everyone explained everything to you, it is a leap of faith to put the most precious part of you, into our hands and kiss him…one more time…before surgery. We get that.


Today is especially meaningful for me, because I trained at VCU. The lessons I learned here form the very heart of what I believe it means to be a great doctor. When I left VCU, I was fortunate to train at the great children’s heart center, The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. From there, my career took me as assistant professor to Kosair Childrens Hospital at The University of Louisville, to associate professor at Dallas Children’s Hospital and Parkland at the University of Texas Southwestern, and most recently as professor and chair to lead the complex rebuilding of Tulane’s Pediatric Heart Center after it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The reason any of that matters is that broad exposure has given me many opportunities to see the culture of many different institutions and schools of thought. Now, I can bring the best of all of those to Richmond and synergize with the similar and deep expertise that already exists here in Richmond in my colleagues in pediatrics, cardiology, anesthesia, adult cardiac surgery, perfusion and nursing.

As I walked into VCU today some 28 years after I walked in as an intern, many things are the same: VCU, still quietly and expertly taking care of the sickest patients in the city; many familiar smiling faces, professors and friends who helped me before, now just as eager in a different way. But some things have changed…It’s even stronger than I remember…11 gleaming floors of just critical care units, the place is growing, thriving. And now… the Foundation’s gift… making it possible for VCU to turn her great strength to children’s heart care. Big city service without leaving the comfort of home, all at the Children’s Hospital Foundation Heart Center. And we get to do it at my alma mater…my perfect job.

When I look in the new faces of trainees here, I am transported back 28 years, to a time when it was my face, and am reminded to teach them well. Now…they are learning the lessons of a career. They will be our doctors and our children’s doctors soon enough. For me…a perfect circle…to train here…to teach here… to save children’s lives here…to give back what VCU and Richmond gave to me. I’m quite sure it’s my life’s greatest honor and I could not be happier to be home again.

Heart surgery up close

Congenital heart defects are the most common types of birth defects, occurring in about one in 100 live births. Each year in Virginia, 800 babies are born with a congenital heart defect. Nearly 400 of these infants require medical care that may include open heart surgery within the first year after birth. These vital surgeries are often performed on fragile hearts no larger than the size of a walnut.


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