Issue: Spring 2006

The Maturing Heart

Lifelong Cardio Care

Children born with complex heart defects often continue to need specialized care as adults, and that can be hard to find, says Vaughn A. Starnes.

To fill this need, Starnes and his Keck School colleagues have started a clinic especially for adults with congenital heart disease. The new program will follow, evaluate and treat patients if they develop arrhythmias or other heart problems. Some patients will also need additional surgery.

“We’re approaching the time where we have some 20-year-olds and 25-year-olds coming back in need of other care,” he explains. “It was important for us to have a program to take care of these individuals as they get older.”

One of those young adults is Brian Alessi, now 26 and a student in USC’s Postbaccalaureate Premed Program. (The program prepares college graduates in non-science disciplines for medical school admission.)

Alessi was born with tricuspid atresia, a condition where one of the heart valves fails to develop. At age 7, he had surgery to repair it.

When he was 18, he had to undergo emergency heart surgery at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles. A few years later, he developed an irregular heartbeat and had another surgery when he was 24, this time at USC University Hospital.

As part of the operation, Starnes redid the Fontan procedure that had been done to correct his tricuspid atresia, using today’s new techniques and materials.

“It was a vast improvement,” Alessi says. “Before, I would be wiped out after playing racquetball for a half-hour. Now, I can play for a couple of hours with no problem. I have a lot more energy.”

That last surgery also inspired him to pursue medicine – and probably cardiology – as a career. Before, he had wanted nothing more to do with hospitals. But lying in bed in the intensive care unit, he started thinking about his future.

“As a kid, having a heart defect was something I was always trying to get away from,” he explains. “But then I realized that while I can’t run away from this, I can use it to do something positive.”

In addition to his classes, Alessi has spent time volunteering at the Los Angeles Free Clinic, has shadowed doctors and is working as an admissions coordinator for the Postbaccalaureate Premed Program. He’s also involved with the new adult congenital heart program at USC, working with a resident to build a database of adult patients.

He’ll be graduating from USC in May and has already applied to medical schools. His first choice: the Keck School.

“I’ve discovered that what I really want is to reach out to people,” Alessi says. “And this is a way I can help people on a very special level.”

– Katie Sweeney