Dr. Gary Satou was born for pediatric cardiology and it did not take him long to find out. As the son of a physician, he knew it was only a matter of time before he entered the vast world of medicine.
“I was in high school and I saw a PBS special on the pioneers of heart surgery,” said Dr. Satou. “I was already somewhat interested in medicine because my father was a physician of a different field. I saw this special and I thought it was the coolest thing to save lives. So basically, I got excited about it and it was at that point I got interested in being a heart surgeon.”
Dr. Satou later realized that he really enjoyed helping children but wanted to keep the thrill of saving lives as a part of his repertoire.
“I saw that I actually liked being with children and families. Normal and simple pediatrics is ear infections and diaper rashes and that didn’t sound as ego gratifying as being a lifesaver. So, I would later be introduced in medical school to the field of pediatrics-cardiology. I knew right then it would be a good mix for me.”
As we enter into Heart Month, Dr. Satou is keen on using this time to raise the level of advocacy for healthy hearts.
“I am pretty well versed on Heart Month because I’m a part of the pediatric section on a national level of the American Heart Association. So, I’m very aware of the level of advocacy for our country, our world, our community in terms of education and awareness of heart disease both in our patient population which consists of children, babies, fetuses and also adults. So, I think February represents an opportunity to rev up advocacy towards all of us in terms of knowing the signs and symptoms of heart problems in humans.”
But it’s not just advocacy that has Dr. Satou and Children’s Heart Center staff eager about the future. It is the advancement of technology in heart medicine that is casting a bright light at the end of the tunnel.
“We are in a time now where we get to use ultrasound technology (echocardiography) to diagnose heart problems in humans,” said Dr. Satou. “Our technology in medicine has improved just like our computers and smartphones. It allows for exquisite imaging of very small structures in great detail. I noticed in the unborn baby that the heart could be seen if you get a good picture and a good position of the baby. I am very excited and impressed that we have the ability to use non-invasive ultrasound to detect heart malformations in children before they’re born so that plans could be put in place to care for them before and after birth.”
In addition to ultrasound technology, there are now advanced treatments that are allowing doctors to insert heart valves in patients without performing invasive surgeries. Dr. Satou described the procedure and how it saves the patient from time in the hospital and a much shorter healing process.
“Some of the biggest advances in heart medicine that a lot of doctors are seeing is that heart valves can now be put in patients without opening the chest and having the heart surgeon do it. The valve can be sown in a metal stent and that stent is collapsed. When you go into a procedure room in the hospital, you can put that collapsed valve and stent on a tip of a balloon-tipped catheter. The catheter, just like an IV, goes into the body without opening in surgery. You can see through a camera where the tip is and then put it right in the area where you want the valve. Once inside, you can quickly inflate the balloon. The balloon goes up, the metal cylinder goes up and the valve is inside. Now you have a metal frame and a valve opening and closing as the heart pumps the blood and the blood goes through without anyone having to open up the chest. Now the person can go home the next day. They’re not spending ten days in the hospital with a big scar on their chest.”
Dr. Satou says that many of the valve devices are starting to miniaturize and it’s only a matter of time before they are widely accessible to more children and smaller patients with various pediatric heart problems.
Prenatal ultrasound screening for heart disease is now becoming a regularity for more pregnant patients. Dr. Satou states it may not be necessary for every patient but the awareness is broadened for those patients who should get them. The technology is advantageous because it can help doctors snuff out any heart defects before the baby is born. According to Dr. Satou, the main priority is finding out whether there is a heart issue or not.
“We haven’t gotten to the place yet where we can figure out what causes heart disease or how to prevent it, but we are able to capture it very early. Now we can prepare for what we need before delivering the baby.”
The importance of the heart should not just be the focal point of one month, but it should be the focal point of every month and everybody. Nonetheless, Dr. Satou is using this month to bring awareness and information to as many people possible about making sure we maintain healthy hearts.
“We need to try to educate others and that’s why this month is so important because we need to inform parents, pediatricians, and family members about what’s wrong and what’s right. They need to know what type of formula should be in that baby’s bottle. And we need to start asking ourselves the real questions like why do we still have soda machine dispensers in school? Why is there so much money being spent on attractive advertising on fun foods that are really not good for you? It’s a capitalistic society so it’s free for all and everyone has to sell their products. I get it. However, we are doing a better job of educating families and groups of people on what’s healthy and not so healthy, starting at birth and when they’re young. This way you’re already healthy when you get into adulthood. Otherwise, you’re risk factors are going up, up, up and it’s something that you may not be aware of.”
Dr. Satou also mentioned that the medical world is becoming so advanced that not all of the procedures are accepted yet. There some new techniques that allow the doctors to perform heart treatments on the baby while they are still unborn. Those procedures are rare and have only been done in a few places around the world. Though those operations are not highly accepted in the medical field, Dr. Satou is delighted in knowing that there are methodologies in medicine that are able to treat heart defects in the early stages of natal care.
Nonetheless, Dr. Satou is pleased to see where the advancements in medicine have brought us as it relates to the heart, but he still feels that a lot more can be done.
“One thing we haven’t solved yet is a more successful way to do heart transplantations. A heart transplant can be life-saving but it does require a bit of a lifestyle change and at times those heart transplants may not last and the patient may need it again. The heart doesn’t last forever because your body fights it. It’s a foreign heart from someone else’s tissue. There is some research on artificial hearts. It would be great to have a heart that could beat forever. But having an artificial heart that’s not made from human tissue requires a lot of stuff that’s not practical either. The other part is just to wipe out congenital heart disease altogether. Once we figure that out we won’t need the transplant in first place.”