Pediatric Cardiology
At the UNM Children’s Heart Institute, technician Laura Pinette prepares 5-year-old Grady Sullivan for an echocardiogram, a test that uses ultrasound to image the heart.
Credit: John Arnold

Echocardiography technician Monica Apodaca speaks soothingly as she applies electronic leads to the little girl’s chest to prepare her for an exam.

“Are you ready, sweetie?” Apodaca asks the whimpering child. “We’re just going to hook you up. No owwies, I promise.”

With the overhead lights dimmed, the exam room at the University of New Mexico Children’s Heart Institute is bathed in a purple glow from the aquarium in the corner. The animated film “Big Hero 6” is playing on a screen in the corner (children’s videos are an important tool in keeping young patients calm).

“Yay! All done!” Apodaca says, at last. “Now we’re going to take some pictures of your heart.”

It’s a typical Monday morning in the pediatric cardiology clinic at UNM Hospital. Parents from all over New Mexico bring their children here to be seen for a host of heart problems – including congenital defects like holes in the heart, under-developed heart chambers or blocked valves.

“There are some things that are very common in the Southwest,” says Vernat Exil, MD, the affable, bowtie-wearing division chair, who came to UNM last August from Vanderbilt University.

“We have a lot of moms with diabetes,” which can cause complications for the baby, Exil explains. “We are seeing a lot of kids that are being referred to us because they have obesity, high blood pressure and poor diet.”

The busy cardiology practice sees a wide range of patients, from newborns through age 18 – and sometimes beyond, Exil says.

“One of the things we want to be as a division is to not only have the ability to see these kids, but to always ask the question, ‘Can we make a difference as cardiologists?’”

That mindset drives a commitment to serve everyone in the state, Exil says. The aim is to provide the highest level of care so that New Mexicans don’t have to travel out of state to have their needs met.

UNM’s doctors also see patients in Santa Fe and on Albuquerque’s West Side, as well as in Farmington, Gallup and Las Cruces – and they provide consults for health care providers statewide. The pediatric clinic also recently introduced a surgical program in conjunction with the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery. Care is provided to everyone, regardless of their ability to pay.

“Our mission is to see the sick and the poor,” Exil says. “Whoever shows up at our door, we care for.”

The division runs on a shoestring, with a relatively small staff housed in cramped quarters on the hospital’s third floor.

“We have a vision, we have a desire, but we are limited by resources,” Exil says, adding that a plan is underway to convert the doctor’s offices in the suite to additional exam rooms.

“The priority is the patient,” he says. “The vision is driven by the needs of the community. The patients come here and they love the place. Our response is, ‘Let us serve them. Let us provide them what they came here for.’”

In another room, 5-year-old Grady Sullivan lies shirtless on the exam table as echo tech Laura Pinette moves the echocardiography wand over his chest under the watchful gaze of Dr. Beth Goens.

The crew-cut redhead had been complaining of chest pains while exercising, says his mother, Courtney Aronowsky, who calmly watches the exam. He’s been referred here just to rule out the possibility of a heart problem.

“He’s healthy – there’s nothing wrong,” she says.

“This looks gorgeous,” Goens says as she looks over Pinette’s shoulder at the cloudy, pulsating image on the screen. “We’re looking at all the coronary arteries, and they’re fine.”

After studying the screen for a few more minutes, Goens isn’t sure why Grady reported chest pains, but she’s not concerned.

 “We never tell you what it is,” she reassures Aronowsky, “but we tell you what it isn’t. It’s nothing that worries me.” Grady is cleared to resume all activities.

As the mother and son finish checking out, Exil says it’s important to set parents’ minds at ease as quickly as possible. “One of the first things parents tell us is, ‘Thank you for seeing us right away,’” he says. “They’re worried about their baby.”

And even when young patients have serious problems, their parents can rest assured their children are receiving the best possible care close to home from caring, highly skilled professionals.

“We handle complex problems,” Exil says. “We don’t have the option of sending people elsewhere.”