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Innovative Solutions  

Heart patient Matthew Alvarado is ‘livin’ the dream’



At just 21 years old, Matthew Alvarado already lives his dream as a professional athlete and coach. But he’ll never forget how the team at Valley Children’s fought hard for his life – and future – when he nearly died six years ago following a high school water polo practice.

“They say I’m ‘one-in-a-million,’” Matthew said. “Sometimes that’s still hard to grasp.”

Matthew and his family vividly remember that fateful evening in Fresno when his blood pressure and oxygen levels suddenly plummeted, while his heart rate and lung pressure escalated to alarming levels. Despite emergency care at a local hospital, Matthew’s condition continued to rapidly deteriorate. The reason why became clear only after his transfer to Valley Children’s.

Pediatric specialists in our Willson Heart Center quickly determined the then otherwise healthy 15-year-old suffered a deadly congenital heart defect normally detected shortly after birth.

“It’s amazing he survived so many years, especially being a dedicated athlete who pushes hard,” Dr. Narakesari Heragu, Matthew’s pediatric cardiologist at Valley Children’s, said. “He’s tough.”

The defect – called cor triatriatum – involved a membrane with a pin-size hole that subdivided Matthew’s left upper heart chamber, creating an unnecessary chamber. The situation caused blood to back up into Matthew’s lungs as well as prevented enough blood to reach the rest of his body.

Fortunately, Valley Children’s treats the most complex cases like Matthew’s every day. Unable to breathe on his own, he received skilled, supportive care in our pediatric intensive care unit. Meanwhile, because Matthew’s fragile condition made it unsafe for him to undergo open-heart surgery to remove the hazardous membrane, our experienced pediatric heart specialists scrambled to craft a lifesaving plan.

Dr. Carl Owada, a pediatric interventional cardiologist, prepared to perform a less-invasive procedure in our pediatric catheterization laboratory – one of the most technologically advanced labs in the country – to decompress Matthew’s lungs.

But before Dr. Owada began to enlarge the membrane hole with a tiny inflated balloon, he discovered the hole rested dangerously close to Matthew’s heart wall. Now what? Known for developing innovative solutions on the spot, Dr. Owada devised an alternate approach – and it worked.

“Matthew would’ve died without Valley Children’s,” Mari Castellanos, Matthew’s older sister, said, becoming teary-eyed. “They’re the experts in treating children.”

Dr. Edwin Petrossian, Matthew’s pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon at Valley Children’s, later removed the problem membrane. Only two months after open-heart surgery, Matthew leaped back into action, winning second place in a diving competition.

Today, the Manteca resident coaches children in Livermore at California All-Stars, one of the top cheerleading gyms in the world, and also competes. “It’s wonderful to see Matthew succeeding,” Dr. Owada said.

“Now I strive to help athletes reach their full potential,” Matthew said, demonstrating a series of dramatic flips for his students. “I’m forever indebted to Valley Children’s – they made my future possible.”