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Hardy heart: Cumberland teen remains active despite defect at birth

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Hardy heart: Cumberland teen remains active despite defect at birth

CUMBERLAND — It may be hard to imagine a die-hard athlete who was born with a heart defect, but Ted Russell is a teen who defies convention.

The 18-year-old Greely High School senior, who plays soccer and lacrosse and runs indoor track, had a relatively uneventful birth.

"He was a normal weight, he was full-term, everything seemed fine," Ted's mother, Pam Russell, said last week, adding that the child was with her and her husband, Don Russell, for about an hour before he was was taken to the nursery. "... It was when he left us that all of a sudden everything kind of crashed ... a nurse came running into our room and said 'don't go to the nursery, there's something wrong with the baby.'"

Ted had turned blue, and attempts to give him oxygen kept failing. He was diagnosed with transposition of the great arteries – his aorta and pulmonary artery, the two major vessels carrying blood away from the heart, were switched, with the aorta arising from the right ventricle instead of the left.

The connection between between the right and left sides of Ted's heart closed, as it should. But when it did, he was no longer getting oxygen.

"He was breathing – things looked normal, his heart was beating and everything – but as he would breathe, the oxygen that would go from his lungs to his heart would just get pumped back to his lungs," Pam Russell said.

"It was pumping un-oxygenated blood through the body," Ted Russell explained.

With his brain and other important areas of the body no longer getting oxygen, the situation had become critical.

Doctors administered drugs, but Ted was still not getting enough oxygen. So they used a catheter to enlarge another connection between the two sides of his heart. Ted's heart was essentially being made to function as it did when he was in the womb. 

Ted was taken from Maine Medical Center in Portland in a specially equipped ambulance with a cardiologist and two nurses to Children's Hospital in Boston.

Don Russell said he and his wife were in a state of shock: trying to be optimistic, but knowing little about their son's condition. "Frankly, we were really lucky that Maine Med was on top of it, the pediatrician on call was on top of it. A pediatric cardiologist was brought in, and he diagnosed it immediately. A lot of things had to work just right for this to go as well as it did," Don Russell said. "... They don't give you as a parent many choices, which is a good thing ... because you're not capable of making the choice."

The Russells spent the next two weeks in Boston, waiting for their son's fate to be determined. Ted, who had a nurse watching him 24 hours a day to keep him alive, underwent surgery at the age of four days to switch his arteries.

"You're basically dealing with a tiny heart the size of a plum, maybe. And the major arteries aren't very big at all, and the capillaries all have to be switched, and they're the size of our human hair, basically," Don said.

Ted was kept alive on a heart-lung machine during the approximately six-hour surgery.

It took a few years for Ted to understand how close a call his birth had been. He continues to be in the care of a cardiologist, and he has annual checkups to ensure his heart continues to function normally. In his younger days, Ted dreaded visits to the doctor for fear he would be restricted from playing the sports he loves, but he continued to receive a green light.

Growing up, he never felt different from other children, aside from the scar on his chest. Within about two weeks of learning to walk he started running, and his parents noted that he had two speeds: fast and asleep.

"The doctors never said I had to do anything different, so I kind of just was like every other kid," he said.

"It was pretty clear as a little kid that he was going to be active," Don said. "He just was an active kid, and took naturally to athletics."

Ted's first cardiologist was cautious, recommending he play goalie if he were to participate in soccer, and take up less strenuous sports. His next cardiologist was a triathlete who could understand the athlete's perspective.

Among the methods used to determine the condition of Ted's heart is a stress test, which isn't the teen's particular favorite.

"I get all these wires hooked up to me, and then I have to run on a treadmill, and they push you until you almost collapse," Ted said. "They want to see you at the most exertion possible, so they make the thing go uphill, and you have to be sprinting, basically ... just to see if, when I work that hard on the lacrosse field or soccer field, that nothing's going to happen, and (my heart) is strong enough to handle that."

Ted also continues to take part in a Children's Hospital study that follows the neurological development of youths who had arterial switch operations.

Don pointed out that the concern is that the surgery performed when Ted was four days old keeps up with his growth.

"Since it was such a major surgery, (the testing) probably will be a lifelong thing," Ted said. "And I kind of would like it to be a lifelong thing, just because if there's something going on, I kind of want to know about it, so I can get it fixed right away."

Although his son and many other children go through the kind of obstacle Ted faced at birth, it doesn't have to be a stopping point, Don pointed out.

"You can hopefully get the right kind of treatment," he said.

Electronically, Ted's heart has a couple of extra blips which might not normally exist, Pam said, along with a heart murmur, and sounds and rhythms that are not always normal. The tests check to see if those abnormalities go back to normal after occurring or get worse.

Causes can vary, Pam said: they can be hereditary, environmental, or totally random.

If he were to give advice to parents of children with a congenital heart defect, Ted said he would recommend they offer the same kind of wide berth that he has had with his own parents. "With the second opportunity (at life) given," he said, "I would put forth all your effort into doing whatever your kid feels like they can do with their life, just because it's such a special gift that they've been given."

Pam and Don noted the importance of getting the doctor's OK for the youth's activities.

Don recommends those parents do their homework and understand what they are dealing with, and "let your child dictate within reason where they want to go, and don't superimpose your own fears and anxieties and inhibit your child from doing what they want to do. You've kind of got to let it go; you get a second chance like that, it would be too bad to not take advantage of it."

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net.