Meeting Impossible Challenges, One Heartbeat at a Time
Dr. Yves d’Udekem’s work at the Children’s National Heart Institute has a single focus: surgeries that save or improve the lives of infants, children and adolescents with complex congenital heart disease.
As the chief of cardiac surgery, Dr. d’Udekem meets difficult challenges daily with determination and optimism. “I like getting patients out of trouble when they have been declared by many to be impossible to operate on,” he says. Recently, this included a child whose heart and lung arteries needed delicate untangling and reconnecting. Another patient’s heart valves needed assembling like a jigsaw puzzle, he says.
“At Children’s National, we have a thirst for innovation and doing new things,” he says. “I often spend my whole day patching and reconstructing hearts one beat at a time, constantly changing my strategy and trying again. The beauty of it is when you finish the operation and everything is working. Those are good moments.”
Dr. d’Udekem also leads research that will improve kids’ overall well-being. For instance, he is studying the impact of their heart conditions on their mental health as they grow up. “We're starting to understand the impact of neurodevelopmental outcomes in patients at 10, 15 or 20 years after their initial surgeries,” he says. Other research involves following young patients with the most extreme cardiac cases throughout their lives to improve outcomes and better forecast future treatment needs. A distinguished professorship, established by the Baier family, will empower Dr. d’Udekem to improve lifetimes for children with special hearts and further advance the field.
One innovation he’s especially excited about is the development of artificial hearts for babies with severe and life-threatening heart conditions. “This may be the way we break the barrier of mortality that today seems insurmountable,” says Dr. d’Udekem. He is working to test one such device now at Children’s National. It’s something he has been imagining for 20 years.