October 20, 2000

Family knows benefit of VUMC heart program

Featured Image

Erin Wathen, 7, one of this year’s American Heart Association’s Heart Walk participants, runs with her brother Stephen, 11. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Family knows benefit
of VUMC heart program

The Wathen family – Cheryl, Stephen, Mark, and Erin. (photo by Dana Johnson)

The Wathen family – Cheryl, Stephen, Mark, and Erin. (photo by Dana Johnson)

By 1993, Dr. Mark S. Wathen, assistant professor of Medicine and director of the Electrophysiology Lab at Vanderbilt, had been practicing medicine for nine years. He had seen a gamut of cardiovascular cases.

But all his years of medical school, residency and practice had not prepared him for what he saw on March 22, 1993.

The day after his daughter was born doctors detected a heart murmur. They called for an echocardiogram.

“Babies are born with murmurs all the time,” recalled Wathen. “I did not listen to her during this time because I was playing the role of daddy. I was not the doctor. But I was present during the echo.

“And as I saw the echo, I was in complete disbelief. I was standing there and made the diagnosis. It was the worst moment in my life.”

Wathen recalled staring at the screen during his daughter’s test, making certain not to make eye contact with his wife.

“I knew she was looking at me. I am sure my eyes were getting big. I am sure I looked shocked,” he said.

Wathen’s daughter, Erin, was born with a congenital heart abnormality called Tetrology of Fallot. Her condition included a hole in her ventricular septum, abnormal twisting of the great vessels exiting the heart, right ventricular outflow obstruction and right ventricular hypertrophy.

“My experience with this diagnosis had been purely intellectual,” Wathen said. “I had studied it. Then to have a sudden emotional and personal association with it was very strange.”

If not treated, Tetrology of Fallot is deadly. Until 20 years ago, there was no treatment for this abnormality – patients lived to be 5 to 8 years old. But thanks to funding through the American Heart Association, Dr. Harvey Bender Jr., professor of Cardiac and Thoracic Surgery Emeritus at Vanderbilt, contributed to the development of the surgical technique to treat this abnormality. He also was Erin’s surgeon.

It was through this organization that many breakthroughs for heart disease and stroke treatments have been developed.

On Sunday, Oct. 29 at 2 p.m., Vanderbilt will host the American Heart Association’s Heart Walk. More than 5,000 walkers are expected for the event, which also raises money for public and professional education and community service programs.

Nashville is among the top three cities nationally in fund raising through the Heart Walk. Last year, Nashville raised $435,000. It is the organization’s largest fund-raiser.

Wathen is quick to applaud the AHA’s efforts in funding much of the research done by cardiovascular scientists and physicians. He too was trained via an AHA fellowship.

This year his daughter will be a Red Cap walker – representative of the heart disease and stroke survivors. Her dad, mom Cheryl and brother Stephen, 11, will join Erin.

“We have walked in the event for about five years,” said Cheryl Wathen. “This is the first time we have taken such an active role. Although we had always walked, Erin is the one who noticed the Red Caps. They were handing out the caps and she asked ‘where is my hat? I’m a survivor.’

“Erin has always been active. She has no limitations. If you did not see the scar on her chest, no one would know there was a problem,” she added.

Erin, 7, is a second grader at West Meade Elementary. She enjoys gymnastics, piano, soccer and choir. She likes math, reading and recess.

For her, this walk is a way of telling people that children are survivors of heart disease too.

About 32,000 children are born with some form of a congenital birth defect and 5,000 of them die each year.

“This walk can help raise money to find treatments and help teach people about how to be healthy,” Erin said.

According to statistics from the American Heart Association, 21,614 Tennesseans died from cardiovascular disease in 1996, which includes heart attacks and stroke. This number also includes a wide variety of other heart and blood vessel diseases including hypertension, rheumatic fever and congenital heart defects.