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Kavanaugh-McHugh keeps patients close to her heart

Dec. 10, 2015, 8:56 AM

Pediatric cardiologist Ann Kavanaugh-McHugh, M.D., has been caring for children with congenital heart disease for nearly 25 years at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. (photo by John Russell)

In her office, Ann Kavanaugh-McHugh, M.D., reaches up to a high shelf and pulls down a stack of notebooks. Reminders, she says, of the 4,000 families she has cared for over the course of her nearly 25-year career as a pediatric cardiologist at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.

The notebooks are filled with Christmas cards, coloring book pages, family photos, construction paper hearts, school play programs and personal notes sent to her from the children, siblings and parents. She remembers each person whose name appears on the mementos. Not surprising, considering she measures her work not in terms of cases, but lives — those saved and those lost.

Kavanaugh-McHugh sees children of all ages who are diagnosed with congenital heart disease, and a majority of the time she gets to watch these children grow up and outgrow her pediatric care. In the pediatric echocardiography laboratory where she served as director for 20 years, she examines fetuses sometimes as young as 17 weeks via ultrasound imaging to identify possible heart defects. With pen and paper, she often draws pictures to explain a child’s heart defect to concerned parents.

She developed the transesophageal echocardiography program, a procedure that provides a clearer image than an echocardiogram and is used to evaluate surgical interventions, works with surgeons pre- and post-operation and also developed the fetal cardiology program that she now directs.

The New Jersey-native didn’t grow up knowing she would become a children’s heart specialist. As a high school student, Kavanaugh-McHugh applied to Yale on a friend’s dare, and was admitted.

There, she majored in biology and then pursued medical school to focus on adult palliative care. As an incoming student at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, her strategy was to get the obligatory pediatric rotation out of the way first. Soon she was hooked on children’s health.

“One of my first patients on that rotation screamed ‘I hate you,’ ‘I hate you’ at me while I was drawing her blood. A few minutes later, she peeked her little head into the hallway where I was making notes on her chart and asked me if I would play a game with her,” said Kavanaugh-McHugh. “I realized then that everything matters to a child. They live in the moment, and in pediatrics, you live those moments with them.”

She completed her residency in Pediatrics, followed by a fellowship in Pediatric Cardiology, both at Johns Hopkins. In 1992, Thomas Graham, M.D., Vanderbilt Professor of Pediatrics, Emeritus, a giant in the field of pediatric cardiology, convinced her to come to Vanderbilt and run the Pediatric Echocardiogram program.

Her commitment to her work, patients and colleagues has only deepened through the years.

“We get to be a part of these families and walk through their journey with them. We are genuinely interested in getting to know each life,” said Kavanaugh-McHugh.

Such was the case with Audrey Moore and her 9-month-old son, Sadler, who did not survive. Audrey was originally from Canada and had no family in Nashville.

“At her son’s funeral, I shared that I had planted a star magnolia in my memory garden in his honor,” said Kavanaugh-McHugh. “Audrey showed up at my front door one day. She told me ‘my family didn’t get a chance to know my son, but you knew him and I need someone who really knew him to remember him with.’”

The two became friends, meeting fairly regularly and frequently celebrating Thanksgivings together. They remember him together.

Kavanaugh-McHugh believes medicine involves listening, compassion and treating everyone with dignity. She has won 12 PRC Excellence in Healthcare Awards — five as director of the Echocardiology Lab and seven for patient care — that reflect patients rating her in the top 10-percent of pediatric cardiologists in the country. However, she is quick to point out those awards are really a reflection of every member of the team, from receptionists to surgeons and everyone in between.

In addition to her clinical work, she enjoys working with pediatric cardiology fellows. In 2007, she started a four-year Imaging Fellowship. In 2010, the pediatric cardiology fellows of Children’s Hospital presented her with the Pediatric Cardiology Mentorship Award in recognition of her teaching and career development contributions.

“They are starting their fellowships with so much knowledge. They are going to do so much in their careers that we haven’t even thought of,” said Kavanaugh-McHugh. “It gives me a lot of hope for the future.”

Outside of work, Kavanaugh-McHugh is married to her husband of more than 30 years, Michael McHugh, M.D., an orthopaedic surgeon at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Nashville.

The couple has four children: Patrick, 29, Caitlin, 28, Christopher, 24, and Kelly, 19. She credits her husband with helping make their home life work because they agree that children — theirs and everyone else’s — are the top priority.

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