A patient-focused program at the hospital maintains care as kids with heart disease grow up.
By Debra Bresnan
At birth, both Aileen Duurloo, 29, and Aaron Clarke, 23, suffered from a condition known as cyanosis. They were “blue babies.” Their blood was insufficiently oxygenated because of serious heart defects.
Today, they continue to thrive under the care of the same doctor who treated them as newborns: Michael Gewitz, MD, William Russell McCurdy Physician-in-Chief and Chief of Pediatric Cardiology at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital, a member of the Westchester Medical Center Health Network (WMCHealth).
These two young adults are among the nearly 150 patients enrolled in a special team care program, Westchester Adult Teen Congenital Heart (WATCH) program, which transitions teen patients with congenital heart disease from pediatric to adult cardiology care at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital and Westchester Medical Center.
“WATCH is a multifaceted program that includes pediatric and adult cardiology services, dedicated nursing, and has close relationships with other specialty departments, such as gastroenterology and pulmonology,” says Dr. Gewitz. “It’s part of a national movement to better treat young adults who have grown up with congenital conditions they have had since birth. In these patients, additional problems can develop elsewhere in the body as they age, so a comprehensive care plan, lifelong, is required.”
WATCH is the only such comprehensive program in the Hudson Valley, and it collaborates with the Adult Congenital Heart Disease Association, a growing organization representing these patients around the country. The WMCHealth team includes staff from both the pediatric and adult cardiology departments and is supervised by Markus Erb, MD, Director of Pediatric Interventional Cardiology. Initiated 12 years ago, the multifaceted program also provides guidance in family dynamics, education, employment and life choices.
Aileen Duurloo lives in Goshen with her toddler, Tiernan, her mother and her brother. She had a cardiac shunt to improve her oxygen levels when she was 5 days old and open-heart surgery to repair her condition at 21 months. She recently underwent heart-valve surgery as a young adult. “At each step, I was fine,” she says. “There have been no complications.”
Dr. Gewitz managed Duurloo’s cardiac care throughout her own recent pregnancy because of her previous heart surgeries. “She did great in delivery, and the baby is thriving,” he says. Duurloo and her fiancé welcomed baby Tiernan into their lives on February 23, 2017, following her full-term, complication-free pregnancy.
Despite her history of congenital heart disease, Duurloo notes, “I can go for a run and am able to keep up with my peers. It has not held me back.” She completed her bachelor’s degree in December 2017 and is seeking a job as a teacher, with the goal of earning her master’s degree in special education. She takes yoga classes and enjoys knitting, crocheting, reading and listening to music. “But,” she laughs, “most of my day is spent taking care of my son. He’s my number-one activity.”
“Dr. Gewitz is one of my favorite people; he treats me like a family member,” she says. “All the nurses and doctors at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital and Westchester Medical Center have always provided me with excellent care.”
Aaron Clarke lives in Harriman with his mother and father, Claudette and Leopold; he also has an older brother and sister. He works at a movie theater, enjoys action films and taking care of his three nieces.
The first indication of Clarke’s congenital heart disease came shortly after birth. A large portion of his heart was underdeveloped, creating serious circulation problems, and requiring operations and ongoing monitoring. These included two complex open-heart surgeries — at 10 months and 4 years old — and several smaller procedures over the course of his life.
“Now that I’m grown up, I understand my condition better, but I really don’t have trouble with it,” he says. “Even though I can’t play competitive sports, I can still do everything else.”
“Aaron is my miracle baby, and I’ll keep saying it until he tells me to stop,” Claudette laughs. “The care he received at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital and Westchester Medical Center was the best. We believe he will live a good life as long as he pays attention to what the doctors say and keeps his appointments.”
Dr. Gewitz credits scientific advances in treatment, particularly surgery, along with the courage of these young adults, for their excellent outcomes.
“When I first started in pediatric cardiology just over 40 years ago, the prognosis for survivability for congenital heart disease was not as good as it is now, especially if you look at the past 20 years,” says Dr. Gewitz. “Today we are working with an increasing population of young adults — there are more adults alive than there are babies with congenital heart disease — and we have a new, better developed medical system approach to formally train physicians in adult congenital heart disease. The new discipline of adult congenital heart disease has really come to the fore to help these young adults move ahead with their lives.”
“I tell our patients they are pioneers,” says Dr. Gewitz. “We are learning from them: They’re teaching us that the future is even more promising.”
To learn more about Pediatric Cardiology at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital, call 914.493.8372.
Photo of Aaron Clarke by Kenneth Gabrielsen; Photo of Aileen Durloo by Teresa Horgan