When Wendy Alderink entered this world in September 1972 with a heart defect, doctors gave her a 50 percent chance of survival.
Forty-six years later, she’s a thriving wife, mother and professional.
She works as an assistant business manager in Cascade, Michigan, and as a Mary Kay consultant on the side. She exercises at the local Pure Barre and enjoys the occasional walk around her neighborhood.
Most days, she lives life without thinking much about how her heart is functioning.
But that doesn’t mean she forgets about the people who have helped her along the way, including Spectrum Health pediatric cardiologist Samuel Lacina, MD, who guided Alderink’s medical care for much of her life.
“I guess when you trust somebody, especially when it’s your heart, you want to stay,” Alderink said. “He just always took care of you and would almost treat you like a little kid.”
Dr. Lacina retired this year, after 37 years with Spectrum Health.
“People like Wendy are the reason I had such a wonderful, fulfilling career,” Dr. Lacina said. “It’s no question.”
Alderink was born with transposition of the great vessels, a congenital heart condition in which the vessels of her heart were arranged abnormally.
“They called us blue babies,” said Alderink, a lifelong resident of Lowell, Michigan.
Within 72 hours of her birth, doctors had transferred Alderink from an outside hospital to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
They immediately performed a less invasive surgery, dubbed a Blalock-Hanlon operation, to improve her heart function. The operation created a hole to change the flow of her oxygenated blood, which would help her until she got a little older and strong enough to endure open heart surgery.
“My mom always said, ‘You’re a miracle baby,’” she said.
At 18 months old she had open heart surgery, undergoing what’s known as the Mustard procedure.
Dr. Lacina said doctors first successfully performed that procedure in the late 1960s, which means Alderink had been born at just the right time.
“She was right at the cutting edge for this surgery,” Dr. Lacina said.
The procedure has since been almost entirely replaced by more sophisticated surgeries.
Full, healthy lives
When Dr. Lacina performed his pediatric residency at Spectrum Health in the 1970s, he saw a need in the community for a pediatric cardiologist.
He went to the University of Chicago for further training, returning to Spectrum Health to join practice with a local pediatrician who provided pediatric cardiology services.
That doctor died four years later and Dr. Lacina took over caring for all his patients, including Alderink.
The year: 1981. Alderink, 10, was in the fifth grade.
“She’s what we had hoped for,” Dr. Lacina said. “My philosophy always has been that we’re not just talking about survival. Helping families raise emotionally and physically healthy adults, that’s the whole purpose. … We want these children to thrive and have full, healthy lives. That’s always been the goal.”
For the most part, Alderink lived her childhood without limitations.
“My mom and dad never focused on the fact that I had a heart condition,” she said.
If she pushed herself too hard physically, she would feel it.
“I couldn’t always keep up with the other kids, but as a kid, you try anyway.”
Alderink married her high school sweetheart, Toby, 25 years ago in July. They have a 21-year-old son, Anthony, now a student at Grand Valley State University.
She enjoyed a normal pregnancy, although after Anthony was born she started experiencing fast heart rates, perhaps the result of what would later be diagnosed as atrial fibrillation, or AFib, a condition characterized by an irregular heartbeat.
She and Toby decided not to have more children.
“My husband grew up without his mom and he didn’t want our son to grow up without his,” she said.
The effectiveness of Alderink’s original surgery held up well over the years, but she has required lifelong follow-up. About 15 years ago, she had a surgical repair of a residual defect. Then, about nine years ago, she received a pacemaker to correct the AFib.
Doctors said her heart had essentially been working backwards as a result of her condition—the weaker side had been working harder—which may have caused the AFib.
‘Dream and strategize’
Now that Dr. Lacina is retired, Alderink has transferred to Stephen Cook, MD, director of the Adult Congenital Heart Program at the Congenital Heart Center at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. Dr. Cook specializes in the management and care of adult patients with congenital heart disease.
“Moving forward I feel like I’m in good hands,” she said.
That had been part of Dr. Lacina’s plan, of course—to work himself out of a job.
There are now more adult survivors of congenital heart conditions than there are children with congenital heart conditions, Dr. Lacina said. That’s a lot of adults who need the care of a specialist like Dr. Cook, who has expertise in congenital conditions.
“When the care gets better, we all succeed,” Dr. Lacina said. “It was very gratifying to be able to step back and say, ‘I know that my patients are going to be in good hands—at least as good, if not better, than mine.’”
In the 1980s Dr. Lacina had been part of a working group that met every Monday morning. He remembers their purpose quite well: “Talk and dream and strategize about pediatric care in the community.”
From those conversations, in fact, came today’s Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
“It’s astounding what things have happened,” Dr. Lacina said. “I am so pleased to have been a part of it.”