An avid sports enthusiast, 14-year-old Claire Smith played hard on the soccer field and the basketball court. Several years ago she was diagnosed with scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine that usually develops during the growth spurt of pre-teen years.
She was scheduled for bone fusion surgery to correct the problem at Cleveland Clinic Children's Hospital. While she was recovering in the hospital, Dr. Peter Aziz, a pediatric electrophysiologist, brought startling news.
Claire's mom, Diane Kushnar, recalled the doctor "took me out in the hallway and explained how serious the condition was, and luckily it had been picked up."
"An astute technician in ICU recognized there was a pattern of tracing (in the electrocardiogram) that looked familiar, representative of something called Wolff-Parkinson-White," said Dr. Aziz.
In Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrom (WPW), an extra electrical pathway between the heart's upper and lower chambers causes rapid heartbeat. Dr. Aziz said in the worst case scenario, it leads to sudden death.
Finding it is key, because it can be fixed. "There aren't many things we deal with in pediatric cardiology that are curative. Fortunately in WPW, catheter ablation provides a curative approach, " said Dr. Aziz.
In the ablation procedure, catheters are maneuvered to the spot of the extra pathway, and then heat energy is applied to get rid of it. It can permanently correct the problem, although for Claire there is a 10 percent chance of recurrence. Her doctors will keep an eye on it through follow-up visits.
In hindsight, Claire remembers feeling some chest pain and fast heartbeat after playing hard in soccer. "I just never thought about it, thought it was heartburn or dehydration...which is scary to think you're just missing stuff."
WPW is found in about 4 of every 100,000 people. People of all ages can experience it, but symptoms often first show up during the teen years. They include the feeling of rapid or pounding heartbeats, dizziness, fainting, tiring easily during exercise, and anxiety.