When he was three years old, Greg was diagnosed with a condition known as pectus excavatum, or sunken chest.
A common malformation of the chest that causes it to cave inward, pectus excavatum can affect the heart and lungs as a child grows up. In the most severe cases, pectus can lead to chest pain, endurance loss, fatigue, wheezing, frequent respiratory infections and heart palpitations. Sometimes, corrective surgery is necessary.
As a baby, Greg had survived a life-threatening form of meningitis. After overcoming such a scary episode, the sunken chest diagnosis felt tolerable for Greg’s parents, Carol and Greg, Sr.
“We would keep an eye on it,” Carol said. “It was always just in the back of our minds.”
Growing Up with Pectus Excavatum
As Greg grew up, the inward caving of his chest grew more pronounced. After a summer family outing to the lake, Greg’s aunt, a cardiac intensive care nurse, suggested the family see a specialist.
The family listened. Greg underwent an MRI scan at a Wisconsin hospital, where a doctor told them his condition registered as severe on the Haller index, an assessment tool used to describe the chest cage.
Greg, now 15 and a three-sport athlete who exercised frequently, was generally in great physical condition, but he had in recent months noticed becoming short of breath while running. He also sometimes complained of chest pain. The condition was affecting Greg’s heart and lung function.
“No parent wants to hear that,” Carol said. “That was a real turning point for us, making us consider the next steps.”
Because Greg was tall and lean, the appearance of his sunken chest was particularly pronounced. That, along with his symptoms, made Greg an ideal candidate for corrective surgery for pectus excavatum.
Finding a Second Opinion – and Expertise
Seeking a second opinion, Greg and family visited a hospital closer to their suburban Chicago home, Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital.
There, they met Fizan Abdullah, MD, PhD, a widely recognized authority on chest wall deformities. Dr. Abdullah told the family Greg qualified for what is known as the Nuss procedure, a minimally invasive surgery that would provide an immediate improvement to the appearance of Greg’s chest. After recovery, the surgical correction would also help him breathe easier when playing sports.
Carol said as soon as the family left Lurie Children’s, they knew it would be the place they would pursue surgery.
“They had all the information we needed ready for us in a folder – what we had to do about the surgery, pain management and everything else,” Carol said. “It seemed so advanced, and impressive.”
Successful Surgery and Moving Forward
In the Nuss procedure, Dr. Abdullah implanted a stainless steel bar that was modified to fit the teen’s chest cavity. The whole procedure took less than an hour, and Greg stayed only three nights in the hospital. In three years, Greg will undergo an outpatient procedure to have the bar removed, but the improved appearance and function will continue.
“It’s insanely impressive,” Carol said.
The first week of recovery was difficult, especially dealing with the pain at night when he was trying to sleep, Greg said. Still, after a couple weeks, he was able to walk around normally and sleep without interruption.
“I knew the surgery was going to hurt, but it was going to be the best option for the long-term,” Greg said.
In January, four weeks after surgery, Greg received clearance to begin attending baseball practices at his high school. As long as progress continues, he will be able and ready to retain his position as goalkeeper for soccer in the fall – no restrictions involved.
“The surgery, it’s tough when you’re having it and the recovery is hard, but it’s worth it,” Greg said.