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48 years later, UK heart patient continues to thrive

Conceptual illustration of heart EKG.

/ by UK HealthCare

Sonja Embry childhood photo
Childhood photo of Sonja Embry

Sonja Embry was born with a congenital heart defect called tetralogy of Fallot. It’s a condition known as “Blue Baby Syndrome,” because valve defects and holes in the heart cause oxygen-poor blood to pump into the body, giving kids and infants with the condition blue-tinged skin.

Embry’s condition prevented her from having a normal childhood. She was often so tired that neighbors carried her to her one-room school every day.

At the time of Embry’s birth, most children with the condition did not survive to adulthood because no surgical procedure existed to repair the defects.

But Sonja did survive, and in 1969 at the age of 24, she underwent a new surgical procedure at the University of Kentucky to repair her heart defects. She went on to secretarial school and enjoyed a long career with the Department of the Navy in Washington D.C. and Memphis. At 71, she leads an active life and still drives to and from her home in Memphis to Western Kentucky to visit family and friends.

She is believed to be one of the oldest living patients with this defect.

Four decades of comprehensive treatment for heart defects

Now, nearly 50 years after Embry’s surgery, the UK Gill Heart & Vascular Institute is a leader in providing comprehensive, personalized care for adults born with congenital heart defects.

Adults born with heart defects face unique challenges. They outgrow their pediatric cardiologists, but their heart problems can be very different from cardiac conditions that begin during adulthood.

The Kentucky Adult Congenital Heart Program (KACH) at Gill is led by Dr. Andrew Leventhal and is the only such program in Central and Eastern Kentucky.

Unlike when Sonja needed treatment and follow-up care, adult patients with congenital heart defects can now turn to the KACH Program for lifelong care of their conditions.

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