Pacemaker for a two-year-old
When Ali Howe took her daughter Amber to the doctor she knew something was wrong. The two-year-old had no energy, was a grey colour and seemed to be having problems breathing.
Ali’s guess was that her daughter might have cracked a rib. She had no idea that the problem was not with Amber’s rib but with her heart, nor that just a few weeks later her daughter would be fitted with a pacemaker.
Visits to doctors and hospitals have not been that unusual for Ali and Amber, who was born nine weeks early, spent a month in the neonatal unit at the local Medway Maritime Hospital, and seemed to often go to the GP with viruses and chest infections.
Royal Brompton paediatric experts
“In the week they realised she had a problem with her heart, we went to the doctor twice, once on Tuesday and once on Thursday,” remembers Ali. On Thursday I just knew she wasn’t right. She was floppy, grey, and had no energy. When we went to the drop-in centre for a blood test, Amber would not walk – she was just crying all the time”.
Late that night, Amber woke up grunting and struggling to breathe. Dad Melvyn took her straight to Medway Maritime Hospital. It was when Ali spoke to the paediatrician there that the cause of Amber’s problems became clear.
“He explained that there was a problem with her heart and that nothing more they could do for her at that hospital. She had to go to London, to the Royal Brompton.” And so on 9 June, Amber was taken by ambulance to RBH where she was assessed by the paediatric cardiology team.
“Amber had viral myocarditis, a swelling of the heart caused by a virus,” explains Dr Jan Till, consultant paediatric electrophysiologist at RBH. “This had caused complete heart block. This is when the heart’s electrical signals, which regulate the heartbeat, are not travelling properly from the top chambers of the heart to the bottom. This means the heart does not beat quickly enough.”
The solution was to insert a pacemaker, a device that most of us would more commonly associate with older people.
“Pacemakers use artificial electrical impulses to regulate the beating of the heart,” explains Dr Till. “Amber is quite young to have one of these devices, but we do fit pacemakers in children on a fairly frequent basis, probably about two to three a month.”
Recovery with a pacemaker
The difference in Amber was immediately noticeable to her parents. “She was brilliant,” says Ali. “She walked to her chest X-ray four or five hours after the operation, got her colour back that night, and went home the next day.
“She will probably need a pacemaker for the rest of her life, but to look at her you wouldn’t know there was anything wrong now.”
“Amber will need a hospital checkup every six months and a replacement pacemaker every six to eight years,” says Dr Till. “There are certain things she will need to be careful about – contact sports, for example – but she should lead a relatively normal life.”
And Ali is grateful to all those at the Royal Brompton who have also been looking out for her and her daughter. “There’s nothing I could fault at all at the hospital. Everyone has been brilliant.”