September 29, 2016

Saskatchewan Pediatric Cardiologists Spearhead Innovative Treatment in Western Canada

Dr. Charissa Pockett says that she has the best job in the world. And that job is becoming even more rewarding now that fewer Saskatchewan kids with heart conditions need to travel out of province for care.  Pediatric Cardiologist Dr. Charissa Pockett

Pockett recently returned from a year-long interventional fellowship where she trained in San Diego in the pediatric cardiac Catheterization Lab (Cath Lab for short) at Rady’s Children’s Hospital. It has allowed the team to provide more advanced care for Saskatchewan kids without them ever leaving home.

“The cardiology team is now able to do liver biopsies, which is particularly helpful for single ventricle patients, which is children who basically have half a functioning heart.” explains Pockett. “A long term risk of the surgeries that these children have to go through can put their livers at risk. We’ve started doing liver biopsies to look at the overall health of the liver and we’re discovering a lot of new information about these patients. This is really up and coming, screening, diagnostic, and prevention work.”

While several medical centers in the United States are doing this cutting-edge treatment, it’s still considered ground-breaking in Western Canada. Pockett’s training is, in part, in preparation for the opening of the new Children’s Hospital of Saskatchewan in 2019. The original plans for Saskatchewan’s children’s hospital didn’t call for a Cath Lab but thanks to a generous $3 million gift by the David and Karen Holst Family Foundation to the Children’s Hospital Foundation of Saskatchewan, the new provincial hospital will now be equipped with its own dedicated Cath Lab for kids. Pediatric patients currently use the adult lab to correct many heart defects to avoid the need for open heart surgery.

Catherization Lab

“We’re visitors to the adult Cath Lab and we do our best to make adult centered space and equipment work for us and our patients,” explains Pockett, who is originally from Dauphin, Manitoba. “Having our own Cath Lab will increase accessibility for our patients and allow us to provide better overall pediatric cardiac care.”

The cardiology unit is one of the biggest and busiest divisions within the department of pediatrics, so patient volume is high. There are approximately 3,000 children in Saskatchewan with Congenital Heart Defects alone.

“Families will have to wait less time to get procedures done and they’re going to be in an environment that is completely child and family friendly,” says Pockett. “I think our patient care and the patient’s experience is going to improve drastically.”

Children dealing with congenital or acquired heart disease from all over the province are referred to Pockett and her three colleagues. In the cardiac catheterization laboratory two pediatric cardiac specialists scrub in on each procedure to act as a second set of eyes and to ensure safety. Part of the work in the lab is the actual physical fixing of the heart, such as closing holes in the heart or opening valves. Other procedures are to gather information to plan for upcoming heart surgeries or to check the health of the heart after surgeries or heart transplants.

“Far more kids with heart problems are being identified before birth and kids are surviving longer compared to 10 or 20 years ago. Going forward we will be able to do so much more for our patients and expect that more and more of them will be able to live long, happy, healthy lives.” explains Pockett, who, along with the other pediatric cardiologists, travels to Regina once a week to treat young patients in southern Saskatchewan.

Pockett says the need for continued funding is on the mind of many of her colleagues.

“Because pediatric cardiology is such an evolving area and there is a lot of technology evolving to help us provide the best care to our patients,” explains Pockett. “There is a constant need for support not only from the government but also from other sources such as the Foundation and private donations.”

Dr. Charissa Pockett and pediatric heart patient

Despite the hectic schedule Pockett says her job is extremely rewarding, and unique because they can follow a child right from birth (and sometimes even prior to birth) until they are 17 years old.

“I get to meet children and see them grow up and their families evolve. I see children and their families at the very worst, most stressful times of their lives and then help them overcome that,” says Dr. Pockett.

“Yes it’s terrible to see kids who are sick but I remind myself that this problem would have happened whether I’m here or not to witness it. It’s my privilege to make that experience easier on families in any way I can and do everything I can to give that child the best opportunity to overcome adversity and go on to do great things in this world.”

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