A Bovine Gift of Life

Web Producer: Brad Maglinger

Ian Conner was born with a genetic abnormality called DiGeorge Syndrome. The abnormality caused several deformities in his heart, all of which have needed surgery. But his latest surgery is very special, and may change the way he looks at farm animals forever.

The scar on his chest is the only indication there's anything out of the ordinary in Ian's life. But a recent surgery has made him pretty extraordinary.

It was at birth that doctors diagnosed Conner with tetralogy of fallot, meaning he had four distinct congenital heart defects. His mom says people find it hard to believe when they look at him now.

"They couldn't believe he was a heart baby just because they're usually small and weak and he's not. He's not either," says Ian's mom Michelle Shuler.

She found the news hard to believe a few months ago when doctors at Riley Children's Hospital in Indianapolis called to say test results showed Ian would need another surgery.

A donor heart valve would come from an unlikely source. Cardiothorasic surgeon Dr. John Brown has spent the last ten years refining the surgery. Right now, his use of bovine jugular veins in pediatric cardiac surgery is in FDA trials.

"They let me know that there is a study they were doing and Dr. Brown told me that's what he would give his own son," Shuler says. "He was like, 'If that was my child, I would go with this.' So, he gave us a choice and we chose this."

Donor valves that come from other children are always in short supply and don't always work very well. A valve from a pig is usually too big for kids. Dr. Brown believes the valve from a cow's neck is perfect. It is the right size and strength, with enough surrounding tissue to connect it to the heart.

He has performed seven such surgeries at Riley Hospital this year, including Ian's. His mom says she's grateful to have access to something so revolutionary right here in Indiana.

If all goes well with Ian's case and the others in the study, the FDA will likely approve bovine neck valve use in the U.S.

The cow valve is treated with chemicals so the body won't reject it. It's not living tissue and won't grow with Ian. Eventually, he'll need another surgery which may be a pig valve transplant that is successful for many adults.

But by the time he needs that, doctors believe they'll have the surgery perfected where they go up through his leg. He won't have to have open heart surgery, which is risky enough.