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MN Baby's Heart Defect Leads To Test That Saves Lives

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) - A Minnesota family is responsible for saving the lives of newborn babies across the country, all because of a simple test.

Eve Saarinen needed heart surgery to fix a congenital defect. It was such a frightening time, Eve's mother spent the next four years making sure other families wouldn't have the same scare.

There's not much that can slow down Eve Saarinen.  Like any 5-year-old, she keeps her mom, Annamarie, busy jumping from one activity to another at their Shoreview home.

She's so full of life, few would guess her life had a difficult start.

"She would have probably died at home," said Annamarie.

Just as Eve prepared to leave the hospital, days after birth, fate intervened.

Eve's doctor detected a heart murmur, which is common in newborns.  An echocardiogram technician just happened to be in the hospital on rotation at the time and screened Eve.

"An hour later Dr. Kochilas was standing in our doorway telling us that our daughter was in heart failure," Annamarie said.

Eve's heart was three times the normal size.  She had a congenital defect and surgery was the only fix.

"Once we realized she was going to stick around, which was great, it's like, 'Okay, this can't happen,'" Annamarie said.

As her daughter recovered in the hospital, Annamarie started to do her research with one goal in mind.

"What are the things that are out there to help prevent babies from being discharged that look healthy but have something wrong with them?" Annamarie said.

Annamarie honed in on pulse oximetry screening.  Used in the neonatal intensive care unit for decades, the non-invasive test measures the flow of oxygen in the blood.

Annamarie wondered if it could be used on all newborns and brought her idea to Eve's physician, Dr. Lazaros Kochilas with the University of Minnesota Children's Hospital.

He began a pilot study in six hospitals to see how easily the test could be implemented.

"We try to apply this technology to common problems," said Dr. Lazaros Kochilas. "They can be healthy if you pick them up at the right time, instead of waiting for things to happen."

That study led to a state law requiring all Minnesota hospitals to give the simple screening before discharging every newborn.

In less than a minute, the non-invasive procedure allows parents to head home knowing a heart defect won't have them rushing back.

"That's one of the most worrisome things," said Dr. Kochilas.

Each year, it's estimated this screening will pick up severe congenital defects in ten babies, like Greta Ryan.

"We would have never known," said Karin Ryan, Greta's mom. "All the nurses in the hospital just couldn't believe it."

Seventeen-month-old Greta will never remember the last-minute heart surgery in her first days of life.

But her mom, Karin, always will.

"It was definitely the worst week of my life," Karin said. "She absolutely would have slipped through the cracks."

Left undetected, Greta would have likely spent her first months lethargic with breathing problems or worse.

Instead, she's healthy, active and always ready to play.

"I couldn't have more gratitude in my heart for it," Karin said.

Stories like Greta's make their way back to the Saarinen home and push this family to do more.

When Annamarie started the effort to make pulse oximetry screening a routine test four years ago, less than a third of a percent of newborns were screened across the country.  Today, she says that number is around 90 percent nationwide.

"It's very gratifying," Annamarie said.  "You know you're here to be a mother, but there's something else to it with Eve and what she's been through."

The work is far from over when it comes to matters of a newborn heart.

"It's a wonderful thing to look at Eve and look at her scar and say, 'That really turned out to be something beautiful,'" Annamarie said.

Annamarie co-founded the Newborn Foundation, which is working with hospitals in other countries to implement this screening.

There will be a fundraiser this October to help raise money for the Newborn Foundation.

Go the foundation's website for more information.

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