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Heart and soul: Expanded pediatric cardiac services


Dennis Mello, MD, Director of Pediatric and Adult Congenital Cardiac Surgery, is a new resource at Floating Hospital to help pediatricians treat kids with heart problems that may need surgery. Dr. Mello has been helping expand Floating Hospital’s pediatric heart surgery program to offer better access and more services since joining the hospital last fall.

Q. Your own son needed cardiac surgery right after birth; how has that impacted the way you approach caring for patients and their families?

A. I know firsthand what it’s like to have a child born with a heart condition and how scary that can be for new parents.  When I was in training in California my son was born cyanotic (blue). His first chest x-ray looked normal and I knew the cause was probably a heart condition.  My colleagues performed an echocardiogram and diagnosed transposition of the great arteries, a condition where the aorta and pulmonary arteries arise from the incorrect ventricles.  I couldn’t believe my son had complex congenital heart disease and I was a congenital heart surgeon in training.

Q. What do you do in that situation?

A. You have to perform a procedure where you reverse the artery back which includes also moving the tiny coronary arteries. When babies are born blue, they often need to have something done right away because they don’t have enough blood going to their lungs. There’s a procedure where you direct a balloon inside the heart through a leg vein and it is used to create a hole between the two atria so that the blood can go back and forth and mix. This can allow the baby to stabilize prior to an operation.  I’m happy to say everything turned out fine. The director of my training program did the arterial switch and today my son is 19. He’s perfectly healthy—a runner, a conditioned athlete.

Q. That must have given you a unique perspective on the whole doctor-patient relationship.

A. I understand what it’s like to be on both sides of the doctor patient relationship. I was sitting there saying, `Please take care of my child —do the best operation you can do!’ Now I have families saying that to me and I can tell them I understand.

Q. What are some of the surgical procedures you perform?

A. I do the entire spectrum of congenital heart operations including complex neonatal surgeries and surgeries on premature low birth weight babies.  I am also involved in our adult heart failure program placing mechanical cardiac assist devices and performing cardiac transplantations.  I have 16 years of experience doing these kinds of operations which makes me very comfortable with every aspect of complicated pediatric and congenital heart surgery.

Q. You came to Boston by way of New Orleans, but the move was actually a homecoming of sorts.

A. I was born and raised right down the road in Hartford, Conn. I went to college (Yale) and medical school (UConn) in Connecticut, and I’ve previously been the chief of pediatric cardiac surgery at Connecticut Children’s Hospital, where I worked for almost 10 years. So joining Floating was kind of like coming home.

Q. What were you doing in New Orleans?

A. In 2007, when I was still at Connecticut Children’s, I was contacted by a friend at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation down in New Orleans. The hurricane had hit two years earlier, a lot of surgeons and docs left after that. There was a big doctor shortage, and their pediatric program had evaporated. So they asked me to go down there and help them rebuild the program. I’ve always liked the culture and the traditions of New Orleans and it was an opportunity to rebuild.  In 2008, my wife, three kids, and I moved to New Orleans. Louisiana has an enormous population of underserved kids who needed heart surgery. I was the busiest I’ve even been when I was in New Orleans. We stayed for six years, but my wife was really getting homesick. After restarting Ochsner’s congenital heart program with excellent results it was time to come home to New England.

Q. What drew you to pediatric cardiac surgery?

A. I’ve always been hands on person.  I enjoy woodworking and furniture building.  I worked in our family plumbing business for many years but got interested in medicine while shadowing the father of a girl I was dating in High School.  Once in medical school a rotation with a cardiac surgeon redirected me into surgery and ultimately into pediatric and congenital heart surgery. I saw that pediatric heart surgeries are very intricate. There’s a lot of complexity, a lot of three-dimensional thinking and reconstruction in your mind about what you need to do.  I trained for five years in general surgery at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut, two years of adult cardiac training at the University of California, San Francisco, and two years of congenital cardiac surgery also UCSF.