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Healing a Child's Heart
By Amy Bentz
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pediatric cardiology and cardiovascular surgery programs.

Mercy and Iowa Heart Center offer Central Iowa’s only pediatric cardiology and cardiovascular surgery program. To meet the needs of the smallest patients with heart conditions, expert care is provided to children by a compassionate pediatric team at a state-of-the-art, conveniently located medical center.

go online. To view a video of Alex’s story or for more information about congenital heart defects, visit




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On April 14, 2010, Anne Niceswanger began having cramps and experiencing contractions. Shortly after she arrived at Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames, her water broke. Because Anne was only 25 weeks along, she was transferred via ambulance from Ames to Mercy Medical Center – Des Moines, where Dr. Joseph Hwang, M.D., a perinatologist with Perinatal Center of Iowa (PCI), delivered a baby boy the Niceswangers named Alex. But being born approximately 15 weeks early and weighing only 1 pound 9 ounces wouldn’t be little Alex’s only challenge.

Just one week later, Dr. Thomas Becker, M.D., a pediatric cardiologist with Pediatric Cardiology, P.C., told the Niceswangers he had found a hole in Alex’s heart. An ultrasound showed the baby had a ventricular septal defect (VSD), a congenital heart defect in which there is a hole between the lower chambers of the heart.

With VSD, “red” blood flows from the left ventricle through the hole to the right ventricle, where it mixes in with “blue” blood, causing extra blood to be squeezed out to the lungs. Infants with large VSDs like Alex’s may not grow normally or may have heart failure. “It was overwhelming to hear this because everything had gone so well until that point,” Anne says. “As first-time parents, we were terrified. We had no idea what to expect.”

The recommended treatment for this condition is open heart surgery, so Dr. Becker referred the family to Dr. David Hockmuth, M.D., a pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon at Mercy and Iowa Heart Center. Because of Alex’s premature birth, Dr. Hockmuth did not think open heart surgery was a good option; however, he suggested another procedure to provide a temporary fix until Alex is able to grow and gain enough strength for surgery.

“We were amazed at Dr. Hockmuth’s dedication to helping Alex,” Anne says. “There was an option he was considering, but he had never done it on such a small baby before. He did research and called other pediatric cardiothoracic surgeons across the country he knew to get advice.”

There were not many statistics available about the procedure, which made the Niceswangers’ decision even more difficult, and there were not many options. “We had to trust the doctor and the nurses 100 percent and let them try,” Anne says. “Without the procedure, Alex may have suffered heart and lung damage.”

On May 14, Dr. Hockmuth performed a pulmonary artery banding on Alex, who still weighed 1 pound, 9 ounces, to restrict the blood flow going to Alex’s lungs. “We can’t express how thankful we are to Dr. Hockmuth and his team for taking a risk and giving our son a chance for a healthy life,” says Anne. “What they did is absolutely amazing.”

The banding was a success. Alex was able to go home for the first time on August 8. He continues to have regular follow-up appointments with Dr. Becker and most likely will have his second heart surgery this winter to permanently fix his congenital heart defect.

“Today we are doing well and are so grateful,” Anne says, smiling. “He took off after the procedure and now weighs 10 pounds, 6 ounces. Our family had nothing but positive experiences at Mercy.”




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