Years in the works, NICU hires its first senior fellow in neonatal cardiac intensive care

After years of planning, CHOC’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), in a partnership with UC Irvine Health, has hired its first senior fellow in neonatal cardiovascular ICU and hemodynamics – how the heart and blood vessels work together.

The fourth-year fellowship position is one of only two such ones in the western U.S. and the first-ever senior level fellowship at CHOC in any specialty, said Dr. Amir Ashrafi, a cardiac-neonatologist at CHOC and fellowship program director.

“It’s a really big deal,” he said. “We’re really establishing our excellence in this field.”

Neonatal cardiac intensive care is a newly emerging subspecialty within neonatology whose primary goal is to enhance the cardiovascular care of newborns with structural heart disease and/or hemodynamic instability.

“Medical information is increasing at such a fast rate, we are at the point where doctors need to sub-sub specialize,” Dr. Ashrafi said. “Here in CHOC’s NICU, we don’t only have neonatal intensive care doctors, but also we have neonatal cardiac intensive care doctors.”

A senior fellowship is one granted to a sub-sub specialist, and such positions are typically reserved for the most elite programs in the country, Dr. Ashrafi said.

“With this fellowship, we’ll start training the future generation of highly sub-specialized doctors who will practice state-of-the-art care for the sickest babies in the hospital,” Dr. Ashrafi said.

Following a selection process in which young neonatal intensive care physicians from around the world applied, the fourth-year fellowship position in Neonatal Cardiovascular ICU & Hemodynamic has been awarded to Southern California native Dr. Ziad Alhassen, 33, who currently is in the Neonatal-Perinatal medicine fellowship program at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento.

Dr. Ziad Alhassen

“I’m definitely excited and feel blessed to have the opportunity to work with world-class physicians at CHOC and to learn as much as I can from them,” said Ziad, whose fellowship begins July 1, 2021.

Dr. Anjan Batra, vice chair of the UC Irvine School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, joins Dr. Ashrafi as associate director of the fellowship. The other two associate program directors are Dr. John Cleary, associate director of the neonatal-cardiac ICU at CHOC, and Dr. Wyman Lai, assistant division chief of cardiology, co-director of the cardiac institute, and director of the echocardiography lab at CHOC.

Ziad, who is married with two young children, grew up in West Covina. He received his medical education at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Bahrain (RCSI-Bahrain) and has been licensed with the American Board of Pediatrics since October 2018.

Ziad said he’s excited to serve CHOC’s patient population and is especially eager to improve his understanding of CHOC’s extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) program, a heart and lung bypass machine reserved for babies with complete failure of their cardio-respiratory system. Part of Ziad’s responsibilities as a senior fellow will be managing all ECMO cases in the NICU.

“Neonatal-cardiac intensive care is something I’ve always wanted to do,” Ziad said. “During my residency, I found myself gravitating toward patients who were critically unstable and required intensive care. It is eternally rewarding to see them get better.”

Ziad’s father is a physician who specializes in general surgery. Ziad has five siblings and he is the second among them to become a practicing physician.

To learn more about CHOC’s NICU, click here.

Collaborative effort involving milestone procedure saves premature baby with complex heart disease

Baby Hope looked into her mother’s eyes and gurgled.

Four days short of turning 9 months old, wearing a white onesie with the words “Best Gift Ever” on the front, she made more baby talk.

“You’re always a big chatterbox – what are you saying?” her mother, Elizabeth “Becca” Wyneken, said as she smiled and stared into Hope’s blue eyes.

Becca and Hope endured a lot to get to where they are now — a happy and very grateful mom and a relatively healthy 9-month-old baby girl whose light-brown hair is just starting to fill in.

The odds were stacked against Hope when she was born prematurely at 31 weeks and five days, weighing just 2 pounds, 3 ounces. Today, Hope is alive thanks to a team of doctors, nurses and others who cared for her throughout a four month stay on CHOC’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and cardiovascular intensive care unit (CVICU).

Born with a complex heart disease, as well as only one kidney and defects on her right leg and foot, Hope’s cardiac neonatologist, Dr. Amir Ashrafi, pegged her chances of survival at between 20 and 30%.

When Becca first set eyes on Hope a couple of days after she was born, she was very concerned about her baby’s health.

“Don’t worry, Mom,” Dr. Ashrafi told Becca that day. “I think we can help her.”

It would take an extensive collaboration between highly regarded cardiovascular interventionalists, some of whom were consulted at hospitals as far away as London, to do so.

And it would involve a high-risk procedure never performed on a baby so small at CHOC.

Dr. Amir Ashrafi, neonatologist at CHOC

Grim news at 20-week scan

At 18 weeks pregnant, Becca, a teacher’s aide, went in for a checkup. Blood tests showed her baby had a high risk for Down syndrome and spina bifida.

Two weeks later, a scan of her baby’s anatomy revealed other potential problems.

Her baby had no kidneys, Becca was told. She appeared to have no bladder, no right leg, no lungs, issues with her bowels, and a heart defect.

“I don’t think I stopped crying for the rest of the day,” Becca recalls. “It was horrible.”

She couldn’t drive home from the clinic. A friend had to pick her up. That night, Becca had dinner with her mother and aunt.

Later, lying beside her mother, Becca cried.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” she said.

She felt a poke in her belly.

“Over and over again, when I got upset, she would poke me,” Becca said.

At that moment, she decided on a name for her baby.

“Hope,” Becca told her mother.

Second opinion reveals true complications

Becca got a second opinion about her unborn baby’s condition.

Her baby was missing a kidney and had a leg defect, she was told. Most seriously, Becca was told, she had a defect on her right ventricle, the chamber within the heart responsible for pumping oxygen-depleted blood to the lungs.

Hope’s aorta and pulmonary artery that carry blood away from the heart hadn’t developed properly. She had a hole in her heart as well as one in her left superior vena cava, a vein that helps circulate deoxygenated blood back to the heart. These holes caused blood to drain incorrectly; Hope would need a team of doctors to correct the blood flow.

“Being very small with complex heart disease, your options are very limited with what you can do and the timing of any procedures,” said Dr. Ahmad Ellini, Hope’s primary pediatric cardiologist.

There were lots of sleepless nights as Hope’s team of doctors and nurses monitored her closely. Becca was beside her nearly every night.

Dr. Ashrafi and Dr. Ellini consulted with two outside experts, San Francisco-based Dr. Mohan Reddy, who specializes in complex heart disease in small newborns, as well as renowned thoracic and cardiac surgeon Dr. Glen Van Arsdell of Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center on the best course of action.

The team of physicians determined that a stent needed to be inserted under a pulmonary artery that was becoming too narrow, making it hard for blood to flow through it. Such a procedure is risky, especially on a baby so small.

“In Hope’s case, the idea was if we could open up the area below the valve while not injuring the valve, that would be a home run,” said Dr. Sanjay Sinha, a CHOC pediatric cardiologist who put the stent in Hope’s heart. “Two things made this difficult: she was very small, and we had no stents this size.”

A vendor was able to secure the small stent needed a day before Hope’s surgery.

Assisting Dr. Sinha during the procedure was Dr. Michael Recto, medical director of CHOC’s Cardiac Catheterization Lab.

Observing the recently developed procedure, known as valve-sparing RVOT (right ventricular outflow tract) stent placement, were several cardiologists, from CHOC and other pediatric hospitals.

“In some patients, there is very little room for a stent. Hope had just enough room for the stent to be placed,” Dr. Sinha explained, “We knew we had the technical skills and ability to do this, but this had never been done before at CHOC on a baby this size.”

A very scary moment

After the surgery, Hope got seriously ill with a viral infection. At one point, Dr. Ashrafi said, her heart stopped but the team was able to revive her.

In cases like Hope’s, where a newborn’s state of health is fragile, members of her clinical team often must pivot in an instant, making their work schedules long and unpredictable.

Hope was at CHOC for four months before she was able to go home. After that, physicians at another hospital removed the stent, closed the hole in her heart, and corrected her left superior vena cava.

Dr. Ellini, who continues to see Hope at her check-ups, is very pleased with her progress.

“She basically has a normal circulation,” he said. “She needed a pacemaker. Overall, she’s doing great. She’s only on one medication and is gaining weight.”

In fact, she’s up to 13 pounds.

Baby Hope

Dr. Ellini said he’s proud of the extensive collaboration that was involved in Hope’s care at CHOC.

“We try to really foster a collaborative team approach in our interventional lab, and this is a great example of that,” he said. “Having a dedicated neonatal cardiac intensive team of physicians and nurses who are really experts in what they do really was paramount in making sure she did well.”

Becca can’t praise Hope’s team at CHOC enough. “They’re totally lifesavers,” she said. “It was a roller coaster — heartbreaking and exiting. I was pretty much afraid all the time, but they treat you like you are family.”

Multi-Focus Seizures Complicate Surgical Treatment for Pediatric Epilepsy Case

During Celeste’s pregnancy, an ultrasound showed that her baby had heart abnormalities. Once baby Jaylynn was born, further diagnostic evaluation confirmed she had tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC), a disorder that causes growths in multiple organs, including the heart, brain, kidneys and lungs. TSC is a genetic disorder, and patients with this condition are known to have a high seizure burden.

In the days after her birth, the right side of Jaylynn’s body seemed to twitch, and Celeste’s instincts told her Jaylynn was having seizures. Celeste mentioned this to her nurse at the hospital where Jaylynn was born, but her worries were dismissed. After being sent home, Celeste called CHOC Children’s and met with Dr. Lily Tran, a pediatric epileptologist at CHOC’s level 4 pediatric epilepsy center.

Over the next three years, Jaylynn tried several different treatment options, including medications, ketogenic diet and steroid treatment. Most treatments followed the same pattern: the seizures would stop for a few months, but then come back stronger than before. She regressed significantly in terms of development, no longer made eye contact, could not sit up even with support and was lethargic all day due to the high seizure burden. She started losing weight and had to have a G-tube placed for adequate nutrition. Her medication regimen was at high doses to control seizures, which led to side effects, such as vomiting and lethargy, which impacted her quality of life significantly. Her days consisted of seizures, vomiting and sleep. At that point, Celeste said her family was simply trying to survive.

“Jaylynn’s refractory case of epilepsy was quite complex because we couldn’t pinpoint where her seizures were coming from based on Phase I surface EEG monitoring,” says Dr. Tran. “We used several different imaging techniques to locate the focus of her seizures, including a virtual reality simulation program. Through these tests and Phase II invasive EEG monitoring, we found her seizures were coming from the left side of her brain, but on this one side, we then found the seizures were coming from three distinct areas. Her case was discussed extensively at our comprehensive epilepsy surgery conference, but there was no clear-cut answer and consensus on what to do next. Each approach had various pros and cons, and each option had questions and concerns. As a team, we constantly asked ourselves, ‘What’s best for Jaylynn?’ when considering these treatment options. Mom was updated at every step of the way so she could make the most informed decision for her daughter.”

Because the seizure focus came from three different areas in the left hemisphere, it was not reasonable to resect these regions separately without significantly more post-operative side effects. Dr. Tran elected to proceed with a functional hemispherectomy to give Jaylynn the best outcome for seizure control and to turn her quality of life around. The procedure essentially “quieted down” the electrical activity in the left side of her brain.

“For Jaylynn, I used everything I learned in fellowship, consulted with other colleagues and leveraged the tools we have at CHOC — such as our ability to perform invasive surgery and our research capabilities — to determine the best course of treatment for this complex epilepsy case. When you have a multidisciplinary team like ours that includes a dedicated neurosurgeon, neuroradiologists, neuropsychologists, educated nurses, EEG technologists, epilepsy pharmacists, social workers and parent champions who work cohesively together, it helps make the patient’s journey a little bit easier.”

Today, Jaylynn is seizure-free and on fewer medications. She is now laughing and smiling, more interactive, enrolled in school and even got to visit Disney World.

“What makes CHOC different from similar centers, I think, is our focus on the patient journey and how we value the quality of life for each patient,” says Dr. Tran. “We treat every child and their family as a whole unit. When you come to CHOC, you’re not just our patient. You truly become part of our family.”

Our Care and Commitment to Children Has Been Recognized

CHOC Children’s Hospital was named one of the nation’s best children’s hospitals by U.S. News & World Report in its 2020-21 Best Children’s Hospitals rankings and ranked in the neurology/neurosurgery specialty.

Learn how CHOC’s neuroscience expertise, coordinated care, innovative programs and specialized treatments preserve childhood for children in Orange County, Calif., and beyond.

The transition from child to adult care must start early with education, pediatric neurologist emphasizes

Navigating from child to young adult can be very challenging in the best of circumstances.

Add a chronic or rare medical condition to the journey, and the process can get very scary.

Teens with chronic conditions face a higher risk of non-adherence to taking their medication or even obtaining it when transitioning from a pediatric to adult primary care provider, medical experts say. And statistically, the chance of them having to be admitted into an ER or have surgery increases, as does the prospect of them dropping out of treatment – which could have fatal results.

Dr. Mary L. Zupanc, co-medical director of CHOC’s Neuroscience Institute and a pediatric neurologist who specializes in epilepsy and rare conditions, stressed in a recent webinar that she’s passionate about preventing patients transitioning to adult care from falling through the cracks.

Dr. Mary L. Zupanc, co-medical director of CHOC’s Neuroscience Institute

“We begin with introducing the concept of transitioning to adult care when our patients are 12 years old,” Dr. Zupanc said while speaking on a four-person panel hosted by Global Genes, an Aliso Viejo-based non-profit that advocates for the rare disease community.

The topic of the 50-minute discussion on Sept. 24, 2020 was “Navigating the Transition of Care for Young Adult Patients.”

In addition to her position at CHOC and as a faculty member at UC Irvine, Dr. Zupanc sits on the board of directors of the Child Neurology Foundation (CNF) in Minneapolis, Minn. On its website, the CNF details several resources about transitioning to adult care.

“We at CHOC have followed the CNF’s template to develop a formal transitioning program here,” Dr. Zupanc said.

Starting the conversation with families when a patient is 12 years old may seem too early, Dr. Zupanc said. But transitioning is a process that doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all solution, and it’s critical to start the discussion when patients are young.

The other panelists agreed. They were Dr. Leah Ratner, a fellow at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston; Sneha Dave, 22, a student at Indiana University who since age 6 has lived with ulcerative colitis; and moderator Amy Ohmer, director of the International Children’s Advisory Network in Marietta, Ga., and the mother of two daughters, ages 17 and 19, who have chronic and rare conditions.

“I think it’s important to introduce the concept (of transitioning) early – to let the parents and patient know, ‘We’re not just going to throw you out,’” Dr. Zupanc said. “Rather, ‘We’re going to work with you so you can learn to self-manage your disease and your medications. And we’re going to go over your plan on a yearly or bi-annual basis.’”

Under the transitioning plan adopted by CHOC thanks to a grant, a healthcare transition program is initiated when patients turn 12 years of age.

Clinicians, social workers, and others continue to prepare their patients and their families for increased independence and management of their care, as well as to the adult model of care, Dr. Zupanc explained.

The actual transition to adult care varies from 18 to 22 years of age—often dependent on insurance—and ideally occurs in stages, as these young adults may have multiple subspecialists. Between the ages of 23 and 26 years, the young adults are integrated into adult care.

“It’s a partnership,” Dr. Zupanc said. “It takes a community.”

Sneha, the Indiana University student, said the transition must go slow because there are so many components to it, such as having to navigate health insurance.

“Young adults diagnosed with a condition at childhood tend not to be as prepared because their parents or guardians took care of everything and they had no ownership of their own care,” Sneha said.

When she was a freshman, Sneha founded the Health Advocacy Summit, which empowers young adults with chronic and rare diseases through advocacy events and programs. In August 2020, the organization hosted an international virtual summit.

“It’s a process,” Dr. Zupanc agreed of transitioning to adult care. “And I think it’s a process of self-empowerment. Most parents are used to taking care of everything. We try to empower our teenager and young adults as much as possible. Parents have to let go at some point, but it’s a process.”

The bulk of Dr. Zupanc’s patients have severe epilepsy that started in infancy. A high percentage also have intellectual disabilities.

“Sometimes they take a step forward and two steps back,” she said.

The path toward a successful transition to adult care begins with knowledge, she explained, followed by support, confidence and, finally, independence.

Dr. Zupanc noted that patients who leave CHOC are welcomed to stay in touch.

“As a pediatric provider for children with rare diseases,” she said, “I let my families and adolescents know that I have their backs and that I’m not going to let them fall into the abyss. If there are issues, I’m here to help them.”

November is epilepsy awareness month. To learn more about CHOC’s Comprehensive Epilepsy Program, click here.

Multidisciplinary Approach to Pediatric Cancer Treatment Benefits an Underserved Young Adult Population

As one of the most robust adolescent and young adult (AYA) pediatric cancer programs in the nation, CHOC’s AYA program offers more than comprehensive oncology care to an underserved teen and young adult population — it’s a model for other AYA programs in the country to build upon.

“In the last 15 years or so, we’ve realized there is a huge survival gap in the AYA population, everyone from the age of 15 to 39 years old, whereas over the past 30 to 40 years, we’ve seen significant survival gains in pediatric patients and older adults,” says Dr. Jamie Frediani, pediatric oncologist at the Hyundai Cancer Institute at CHOC. “The AYA population has had very few survival gains, and we believe this is because of a multitude of reasons. They are much less likely to enroll in clinical trials or have access to clinical trials, they do not have the same access to novel new experimental treatments that can improve their survival, their tumor biology is likely different and then there’s a whole host of psychosocial reasons. AYA patients really are their own unique population, and the AYA program at CHOC aims to address that survival gap and to address it from a multipronged approach.”

The multipronged CHOC AYA program focuses on education, research and psychosocial support to increase survivorship within the AYA population.

“Our patients really want to know more about their disease,” Dr. Frediani says. “They want to know more about how their condition impacts their lives whether they’re in treatment or survivorship, such as fertility and sexual education, for example. Our team of experts have education nights with patients to talk about any topics they want to discuss. We have peer mentorship so patients can talk through the highs and lows they experience with someone who’d been through the same thing they’re going through.”

From a research standpoint, Dr. Frediani says the goals of the program are getting more of the AYA patients into clinical trials, knowing where the clinical trial enrollment gap exists and building relationships with adult counterparts to find the best hospitals where AYA patients can be treated.

“We know pediatric diseases do better if a patient is treated at a pediatric hospital. Finding where these patients will do best and forming those relationships to get the most appropriate care is critical. It’s also about finding everything else they need — the supportive medicine, other drugs and different dosing, clinical trials and research projects.”

Addressing AYA patients’ psychosocial needs is the third prong of CHOC’s AYA program.

“I’m a firm believer that multidisciplinary psychosocial supports plays a huge role,” Dr. Frediani says. “Mental health plays a significant role in the treatment of our AYA patients, and I have to believe that affects their outcomes. AYA patients are at a critical juncture in their lives where they’re trying to seek independence. A lot of them are having kids, getting married, starting new jobs, going to college — all these critical life transitions are happening. When you put cancer on top of that, the natural order of this time in their lives is completely disrupted. Social workers, child life specialists, psychologists, case managers, music therapists — all of our resources help our patients know we truly understand their feelings and needs and are here to help them in every way we can.”

CHOC’s AYA program was developed around 2014 and was one of the only AYA programs in the nation to offer such a comprehensive range of services. Dr. Frediani notes that while some AYA programs in the United States today have a heavier focus on treatment, nurse navigation and clinical trials, others are more support-group focused. CHOC is unique because its program is a hybrid of both.

“Our AYA program has a depth that most programs do not. We have this very robust psychosocial support and clinical trial programming around ours. I think we are unique in the amount of resources we provide for our AYA patients. Addressing cancer from our multipronged approach with a multidisciplinary team ends up being so important.”

The strength of CHOC’s AYA program is rooted in the institution’s values and commitment to providing comprehensive cancer care.

“CHOC comes from a community-based model of medicine,” Dr. Frediani says. “We value the bedside relationships with patients, spending time with them and taking care of not just their medical disease, but everything else around it. I see that across our team, from our nurses to our physicians to our social workers to our child life specialists. Everyone is here to stand with our AYA patients and to help them live whatever life they want to live, in whatever way that means. Other physicians should know CHOC wants to help their AYA patients in any way we can, from offering second opinions to helping with fertility preservation to checking on the availability of a clinical trial. I want to make sure there’s not a person in this age range who goes without these critical resources, without knowing this program is here for them.”

Our Care and Commitment to Children Has Been Recognized

CHOC was named one of the nation’s best children’s hospitals by U.S. News & World Report in its 2020-21 Best Children’s Hospitals rankings and ranked in the cancer specialty.

Learn how CHOC’s pediatric oncology treatments, expertise and support programs preserve childhood for children in Orange County, Calif., and beyond.