Issue: Spring 2006
The Maturing Heart
Lifelong Cardio Care
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
“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
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
– Katie Sweeney