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Living life to the fullest with congenital heart disease

Congenital heart disease is the world’s most common birth defect, but it doesn’t have to stop kids from leading full, active lives.
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The week before he was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect, 11-year-old Mason vander Ploeg hiked the Grouse Grind in under an hour.

“He flew down the hills skiing. He ran, played, scootered and skateboarded,” says Mason’s mother, Shanna Kanuka. “He was a healthy, active boy who showed no signs he had a heart condition.”

But while at sailing camp in August 2018, Mason complained he had a headache and stomach pain. Shanna attributed it to heat stroke, but as the week went on, the pain got worse. 

“He couldn’t rest his head without feeling like it would explode,” she says. “He could no longer eat without screaming in pain.”

Shanna, a nurse, couldn’t make sense of his symptoms and took him to the local hospital, where they discovered his blood pressure was through the roof. The next morning, they headed for BC Children’s Hospital, where Mason was diagnosed with congenital heart disease (CHD) – specifically coarctation of the aorta, which is a critical narrowing of the major blood vessel in the body.

Without an accurate diagnosis, Mason could have died from his condition. 

February is Heart Month and a time to raise awareness about the importance of cardiovascular health. As kids like Mason will tell you, heart disease isn’t just a health problem for adults. Approximately one in every 100 babies is born with a heart defect. 

In CHD patients, there is an abnormality in the structure of the heart at birth. More than 500 children are diagnosed with CHD in B.C. every year and the vast majority of these children are treated at BC Children’s Hospital. 

Dr. Shubhayan Sanatani, the Medical Director of the BC Children’s Heart Centre, says getting children back to their families and doing the things they love is what it’s all about.

“For many families, receiving a diagnosis of congenital heart disease can be devastating,” he says. “Through innovation, research and collaboration, the long-term outcomes for congenital heart disease continue to improve.”

While the statistics used to be grim 60 years ago with only 20% of children with CHD surviving into adulthood across Canada, that number has since increased to more than 95%. This also means there is a growing population of young adults who require life-long cardiac care.

BC Children’s has cardiologists and cardiac surgeons along with a team of nurses, technicians, and other specialists who oversee approximately 10,000 visits from patients with heart conditions each year.

Mason received corrective heart surgery at BC Children’s and he’s set for another echocardiogram in April. In the meantime, he wants to give hope to other kids with CHD.

“I’m grateful for the things I can do,” he says. Mason is active in sports, including mountain biking, skateboarding and ball hockey.

He is also passionate about reducing the amount of plastic in the oceans around the world. He is a Junior Ambassador for Plastic Oceans Canada and has been asked to give a TEDx talk on the subject at the Bell Performing Arts Centre in Surrey on February 29th. 

“Ever since he could speak, he’s been an advocate for the ocean,” says Shanna. “He’s always been determined.” 

“You don’t just have to live with heart disease, you can thrive.

The Children’s Heart Centre cardiology clinic provides complete care for children and adolescents living with all kinds of congenital and acquired heart disease. In 2019, more than 200 open heart surgeries were performed at BC Children’s. Nearly half of those were babies under one year old. As the only centre providing pediatric cardiac surgery in the province, the Heart Centre also cares for children from partner sites as far away as Winnipeg through the Western Canadian Children’s Heart Network. 

BC Children's Hospital; Cardiac Services BC; heart conditions; Kids; Patient story
Children's Health
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