By Aparna Pillai
A UCLA alumnus was the inaugural recipient of a grant in September to advance the treatment of heart defects present at birth.
Dr. Jennifer Woo, who graduated from the David Geffen School of Medicine, received the Advanced ACHD Fellows Grant from the Heartfelt Dreams Foundation. The foundation provides assistance to congenital heart defect patients, their families and the medical professionals who care for these patients, said CEO and cofounder Eric Ankerud.
The newly launched national grant is awarded annually to those in fellowship programs focusing on cardiology and training in congenital heart defects in adults. Woo is currently an adult congenital heart disease fellow at Stanford University.
Congenital heart disease is the No. 1 birth defect in the United States, Ankerud said, and it is a lifelong condition with no cure. These defects can range from mild forms – such as a small hole in the heart – to severe types, such as missing or deformed parts of the heart, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Woo also completed her internal medicine and pediatrics residency at UCLA, where she was initially drawn to congenital heart disease after treating and looking after kids with heart disease. She said her job is special because she treats patients beginning in their 20s and potentially through their 80s or 90s.
“Whenever I meet a patient, I have to really sit down and think about, ‘OK, what did their hearts look like? What kind of surgeries did they get? What do their hearts look like now? What are the issues of either their original heart defect or the repaired heart that has things that I need to be able to monitor or treat at this time?’” Woo said. “That’s what’s really unique is that no single patient is the same.”
Additionally, Woo said there is currently not much data on how to treat these patients, who generally develop heart failure in their middle-aged adult years, as opposed to patients with more traditional cardiovascular diseases who tend to develop heart failure as they reach their 60s and 70s. She is interested in improving clinical care and improving research outcomes for this group of patients, she added.
Woo said she hopes that using the grant money, she can develop a tool that can measure how much patients’ symptoms have improved.
“I would love to be able to say to my patients someday, ‘We have the data. This drug does or does not help you, does or does not help improve your symptoms, does or does not help reduce hospitalization or readmissions,’” she said.
The foundation was impressed with the response and interest from the cardiology community when reviewing applications for the grant. Ankerud’s more personal experience with congenital heart disease was the primary reason for establishing the foundation, Ankerud said. His wife, another co-founder, was one of the first infants to be treated for a heart defect with open-heart surgery.
One goal of the program is to support patients and their families with financial assistance and transportation, since there are only about a dozen specialty hospitals in the country that can care for these patients, Ankerud said. Another goal is to provide information and continuing education for cardiologists and cardiac care nurses through medical education programs so they are better able to care for and treat adult patients, he added.
Carrie Scribner, a nurse practitioner who works with Woo, said Woo has significant experience and knowledge of the field and is a useful resource when working with patients and coming up with treatment plans.
“We didn’t have a great tool for estimating sudden cardiac death for patients,” Scribner said. “She (Woo) decided to develop a tool online herself. So she just takes what we do for our patients and elevates it.”
Woo was always willing to help when someone had a patient, Scribner added. She said she is excited that Woo was awarded the grant and is earning her well-deserved recognition.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Scribner said. “She’s a busy mom with two young children, (she) just had a baby and manages to still take on extra projects while maintaining her clinical responsibilities and her fellowship responsibilities.”