By Chris Adams

When Dr. Charles Fraser Jr. was young, 60 years ago, babies born with certain types of heart defects would almost always die.

Today, they almost always live.

It’s due to heart surgeons such as Fraser, a giant in the field who – with his teams – has performed more than 18,000 corrective operations in children and adults. It’s also due to major advances in surgical techniques.

Fraser is director of the Texas Center for Pediatric and Congenital Heart Disease at the University of Texas at Austin’s Dell Medical School. In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, Fraser told of the evolution in his field – including what is known as “transposition of the great arteries” in newborns.

“Transposition is actually a relatively simple concept,” he said. “The heart is normal but the blood vessels are reversed.” It results in a shortage of oxygen in blood flowing from the heart to the rest of the body, leading to complications or death. To correct it, surgeons such as Fraser reconstruct the heart so the aorta is attached to the left ventricle and the pulmonary artery is attached to the right ventricle – as it should be.

Fraser describes himself as “just a plumber,” but he’s a plumber who works on hearts the size of grape tomatoes. And he does so in surgeries that routinely last six to eight hours – and often 16 or 18 hours.

He led fellows through the advances in surgical techniques and described the devices that can give babies born with defective hearts normal lives. He also described some of the frustrations he faces, such as the challenges of getting adult-sized medical devices and pumps to function in children.

About one in 100 children will have congenital heart disease; of those, 25% will need intervention in the first year of life.

In addition to heart defects that babies are born with, Fraser also talked about acquired heart disease – and how the obesity epidemic is rapidly affecting children. The CDC, for example, notes that the percentage of children and adolescents affected by obesity has more than tripled since the 1970s.

“I’m very concerned about the statistics about childhood obesity,” he said. “It’s like an iceberg that’s out there, and we’re not paying enough attention to the iceberg. … The time to prevent heart disease is childhood.”