“Has anyone ever mentioned that your baby has an irregular heartbeat?”
The question from her pediatrician stopped Maggie Schmieder in her tracks. She’d brought in her 8-week-old daughter, Wynnie, because she had cold symptoms, and was expecting it to be a routine visit.
“I’m a special education teacher, and when I was pregnant I worried about things like autism or Down syndrome,” says Maggie. “That my baby could have a heart condition never entered my mind.”
The pediatrician recommended that Maggie immediately take Wynnie to Lurie Children’s for an electrocardiogram (EKG), and Maggie texted her husband, Derek, to meet her at the hospital.
Lurie Children’s is ranked #3 in the nation for pediatric cardiology and heart surgery by U.S.News &World Report. The Heart Center’s cardiologists and surgeons see more than 16,000 patients each year, and care for more children with life-threatening cardiac conditions than any other hospital in Illinois.
At Lurie Children’s, Wynnie’s EKG indicated that she had a form of arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm) that resulted in an abnormally slow heart rate, also known as bradycardia. Wynnie was admitted to the Heart Center’s Regenstein Cardiac Care Unit (CCU), where she was diagnosed with second degree heart block. The condition is caused by an interruption in the electrical signal that travels from the upper to the lower chambers of the heart. This “block” slows down the signal, affecting the rate and rhythm of the heart.
Wynnie’s cardiologist, Ahmad Sami Chaouki, MD, treated her with steroids, and she was discharged several days later. At a checkup a few days after going home, it was discovered that her heart rate had slowed further, and she returned to the CCU for several days. By her four-month checkup, Wynnie was in complete heart block.
In heart block, the upper and lower chambers become electrically separated, and a heartbeat cannot travel from the heart’s receiving chambers to the pumping chambers. Fortunately, the heart has its own natural backup pacemaker, one that generates electrical impulses at the level of the pumping chambers and conducts them throughout the muscle of the heart, stimulating the heart to contract and pump blood. Unfortunately, this rhythm is slower than the heart’s usual pacemaker.
Currently, 3-year-old Wynnie is doing well, and outwardly displays no symptoms of a damaged heart. She can keep up with her friends and her big sister, Ebby, and has no physical restrictions – despite her slow heart rate.
“Wynnie is amazing,” says her mom. “She’s a crazy woman. We always say, ‘What is she going to be like at full speed?’”
Wynnie’s parents know that she will eventually need an artificial pacemaker implanted. Maggie says that every time she takes Wynnie to one of her twice-a-year heart checkups, she gets nervous.
“I wonder, ‘Will this be the visit where they tell us she needs a mechanical pacemaker?” she says. “We know what the end game will be. We just don’t know when it will be.”
In 2016, in appreciation for Wynnie’s care, Maggie, her brother-in-law and three friends joined the Lurie Children’s Marathon Team to run in the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. After taking a year off, the team ran again in 2018, and has raised nearly $30,000 for the Division of Cardiology.
“I wanted to run for Wynnie and for Lurie Children’s,” says Maggie, who had never run more than a 5K race. “It was a way to connect with the hospital. You never know when this could be your story. I know that ultimately she’s going to be fine, and I know that her doctors and nurses are superheroes. We’re just so grateful for what the hospital has done for Wynnie and for us.”