In February, hearts are everywhere - in store windows, on candy boxes, and on every card found in the store. So with hearts as an image in the forefront, it makes sense that February is also known as Heart Month.
It’s a time to bring awareness to being heart healthy and realize that many people are living and thriving with heart conditions.
While every person’s experience with a heart condition is different, 17-year-old Eric Hutman lives with a congenital heart defect known as the transposition of the great arteries (TGA).
In this condition, the aorta and pulmonary arteries are reversed and oxygen-rich blood circulates through the heart and lungs, while oxygen-poor blood circulates through the rest of the body.
“When Eric was first born, on Dec. 17, 1999, the doctors knew something wasn’t right, so they monitored him and when they checked his blood, they realized immediately what was going on,” said his mother, Leanne Hutman.
“He was transported by air ambulance to Winnipeg, where he had his first surgery at two days old, which was a post-balloon atrial septostomy.
“This procedure moved through a vein in Eric’s umbilical cord to his heart. They also put another hole in his heart to allow more oxygen-rich blood to be distributed throughout his body through mixing,” Hutman continued.
“He instantly turned more pink, but we knew the one surgery was not going to be enough, so they flew him to Edmonton for the larger surgery.”
Hutman noted that the nurses at the Swan River Health Centre gave her a Polaroid picture of Eric to take along with her on the long drive to Winnipeg, and to keep with her and her husband, Jack, while they were away from their new son.
“At five days old, Eric had his second surgery, which was to snip the two main arteries and put them in the correct places,” said Hutman. “It was a long, six-hour surgery, and once it was over, and he was past the 48 hour critical time, we knew he was doing better.
“Our biggest reason for choosing Edmonton for the surgery was because I had family there, but as it turns out we met our wonderful surgeon, Dr. Ivan Rebeyka, who is said to be the best in Canada. I definitely believe that now.”
Once the initial surgery had been completed, Eric remained in the Edmonton hospital for a few days before being transferred back to Winnipeg, and finally back home to Bowsman.
Going forward, the Hutman family travelled to Winnipeg on a regular basis for check-ups and close monitoring.
“Things were going well until Grade 5 when I was playing goalie for floor hockey in gym,” said Eric Hutman. “I wasn’t doing much but my teacher came up and told me I was as white as snow.”
Leanne added that they were soon headed to the doctor for a regular appointment, but when they mentioned the episode, it meant closer monitoring as they knew something was changing.
“When they did the initial surgery, it created a weak spot where they rejoined the arteries,” she said. “It’s like cutting a garden hose, and then patching it with a bandaid and expecting it to hold.
“There was a lot of pressure at the point where blood was leaving the heart, so at this point they wanted to monitor things much closer.”
Eric said they would go to Winnipeg every three months for two years, sometimes for ultrasounds and sometimes for MRI scans, with the reports being sent to Dr. Rebeyka in Edmonton.
“When they started to monitor, the aorta was 3.5 centimetres, but it grew,” he said. “It got to 4.8 centimetres before I had the surgery, but now it’s back down to 3.5 centimetres and it hasn’t changed in the last four years.”
Once the aortic root expanded to the danger zone - at five centimetres, it is at high risk for bursting - Eric needed another surgery.
“We saw Dr. Rebeyka again in Edmonton on Feb. 28, and this time, he put a Florida sleeve on the aorta,” said Leanne Hutman. “This provides extra support for the artery so he can get back to doing the things he really likes.”
Between his episode in Grade 5 and the surgery three years later, Eric was not able to do much physical activity at all.
“I couldn’t do anything that would put strain on my heart,” he said. “Even after the surgery, I couldn’t do a lot until about Grade 11.”
It will have been four years this month since his second surgery, and Eric can now look back at how his life has been different, but also how it has been the same.
“My heart condition didn’t really affect me until Grade 5,” he said. “I wasn’t a huge sports kid growing up, but I liked running around and doing things around town.
“Now, all my buddies are good hockey players and I’m not, so I can’t go out and play hockey with them, but it is what it is.”
Eric noted that there were times when having his heart condition really got to him, but he persevered.
“There were moments when I was feeling better after the surgery where I could get up and walk around, but I still had to wait a few months before getting back into gym,” he said.
“Last spring, I wanted to play baseball, but it was just too hard, and the doctors were concerned about me getting hit in the chest.
“Definitely, if I didn’t have a heart condition, I would have played more sports in school,” Eric Hutman continued. “I just can’t play sports like other people.”
Through it all, Eric and his family do their best to stay positive.
“There are times that it’s going to get to you, that you can’t do certain things or you have restrictions, but you just have to look on the positive side,” Eric Hutman said. “I’m still here and I’m pretty much a normal kid.
“The drive to Winnipeg gets pretty boring, especially when you’ve done it so many times, but I listen to a lot of music and hang out with my friends and that helps a lot.”
Leanne added that she really appreciates that his friends know about his condition but they don’t treat him any differently.
“Another way I stay positive is thinking about the fact that I could be in much worse condition,” Eric Hutman said. “I could be living in a hospital bed, so I’m really fortunate I can get up and do the things I love, like hunting and fishing.
“I just try to live with it. It’s hard to say how to do that, but you just get used to it. It’s always in the back of my mind when I do things that I can’t get too crazy, especially with sports.”
Leanne noted that for her, one of the hardest things was understanding that it was not her fault and that there was nothing that could have been done differently to change the outcome.
“It was hard, and I asked myself ‘why me?’ for a while,” she said. “I always try to think he could be so much worse, but of all the things he could have had, this was the best of the worst. And, his condition was fixable.”
During his regular check-ups with Dr. Dion Pepelassis in Winnipeg, ongoing monitoring of his heart and the aortic root continue.
“They are monitoring him for a ‘back flush’, which means that the valve doesn’t quite seal properly and allows some of the blood to pull back into the heart every time it pumps,” said Leanne. “Nothing along the way has stopped him from growing and he eats like a normal teenager.”
Jack noted that he makes up for the things he can’t do with the things he can do.
“He does a lot of hunting, fishing and snowmobiling,” he said. “He does things that aren’t so strenuous.”
Eric added that he has a passion for the outdoors and doing things, so spending time with his family trying to snag a deer or going ice fishing are a great pastime.
“There aren’t a lot of people that put the time and effort into (hunting and fishing), but that’s our passion, so we do what we love,” he concluded.
“At the end of the day, I do what I can to get out and just do stuff.”