At 14, Zahra al Balooshi is one of the older children to benefit from cutting-edge procedures offered at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City's paediatric cardiac surgery unit. Thanks to advances made, neither newborns nor youngsters need be sent abroad for treatment. Hala Khalaf reports
ABU DHABI // The hole that was discovered in Zahra al Balooshi's heart when she was eight months old was repaired last month, two months shy of her 15th birthday.
"I can finally catch my breath and have a normal life," said the teenager, who was excited to have the surgery and encouraged her parents to feel confident about the operation.
"I can't believe how much more I can do now without immediately feeling tired," she said.
Zahra's heart defect, said her mother, Zaina al Balooshi, had been expected to heal on its own - or so her doctors had hoped.
As a child, she was not as energetic as her seven siblings, and at age four, her parents discussed medical advice that something needed to be done.
"Her father refused because he was afraid for his daughter, and he could see that she was laughing and playing and walking and talking like a normal girl and didn't see the need to subject her to surgery," Mrs al Balooshi said.
By age 11, however, Zahra's lethargy could not be ignored.
"She was more articulate, and told us that she could barely do anything without getting tired and needing to sit down. It was no way to live for a young girl," Mrs al Balooshi said.
When Zahra sat down with her father and told him that she was tired of being tired, and needed his help, the family, who live in Al Ain, decided to push ahead with the surgery.
"Unfortunately, a simple catheterisation did not work," said Mrs al Balooshi, describing the procedure of inserting a catheter into the heart in order to correct the defect.
The solution to Zahra's problem was eventually provided by the paediatric cardiac surgery division at the SEHA-operated Sheikh Khalifa Medical City (SKMC) in the capital.
A minimally invasive surgical procedure perfected by the paediatric cardiac surgeon Dr Laszlo Kiraly meant that Zahra was not subjected to open-heart surgery. She was left with a four-centimetre scar as the only reminder of her ordeal.
"Zahra was very lucky because she had a defect that was ideal for closure in this way, and it could have become potentially dangerous in the long-term if left untreated," said Dr Kiraly.
The hole in Zahra's heart - three centimetres in diameter - was closed using a procedure that only SKMC provides in the UAE.
"We do use a heart and lung machine in this major surgery, but we work delicately to close the hole in a cosmetically very appealing, minimally invasive way so that she can barely even see the scar," said Dr Kiraly.
The five-year-old procedure is one among many cutting-edge procedures offered by SKMC's cardiac department, where doctors are able to perform complex surgeries on newborns that are only a few hours old.
"In the past four years since the paediatric cardiac surgery division has started, we have performed over 950 surgeries on children and babies, and 40 per cent of those were on newborns aged zero to 30 days old," said Dr Kiraly.
Dr Tej Maini, the chief executive at SKMC, said that advances made by the paediatric cardiac unit meant that neither newborns nor older children need to be sent abroad for treatment, as was the case four years ago.
"Most of these newborns would require immediate surgical interference after birth, and the existence of the programme helps save the lives of these babies and improve their quality of life," he said.
Babies who have congenital heart defects diagnosed while they are still in the womb can now be taken to SKMC as soon as they are born.
"We try to fix most problems in one setting, which we call primary care, and when these babies are treated at an early age, the disease does not have the possibility of developing complications later and the results are excellent," said Dr Kiraly.
The youngest baby he has performed surgery on was only six hours old and the smallest baby weighed just 450 grams.
Zahra was lucky to have made it to age 14 with no severe complications, said Dr Kiraly.
"It was Zahra really who encouraged us to go ahead with the surgery because she wanted to get better so badly," said Mrs al Balooshi. "She is already back at school and the difference in her cannot even be described. We are so thankful."
As for Zahra herself, she insisted the operation was "no big deal".
"I haven't started playing sports yet, but the doctors say I soon can, and that's what I'm looking forward to the most," she said.