Five years after Aimen Shaaban, MD, arrived to lead The Chicago Institute of Fetal Health, Lurie Children’s is in the top five hospitals nationally for fetal medicine. Hear how he and his team work for healthy beginnings in life, and his big plans for the future.
Q: What inspires you most about your work?
A: It’s the families who give us their hearts and trust us along the way. That’s the foundation that allows us to bring in the next family and care for them better and better. They are our inspiration.
The beauty of taking care of children and families is that you're investing in a normal life. That's the goal, right? And everyone's normal is different. Everybody has high expectations for their child. Parents want to be able to dream about a normal life for their child - about their kid someday growing up, being independent and maybe getting married. Whatever it is, you want them to be able to dream. So when parents come in, we tell them: don’t let go of your dreams. Our goal is for your child to have the opportunity for a successful life.
With some of the diseases we treat, our intervention is dramatic and lifesaving. In other cases, it's incremental and that’s important too. To allow a child to be able to go to the bathroom normally or to breathe more easily – think of the impact over the course of life. It allows somebody to have an independent successful life.
We are working for a healthy beginning because if it's a healthy start then there's a better chance for a healthy finish.
Q: How do you feel about what’s been achieved in the last five years?
A: We’ve had tremendous growth in consultations, treatments and surgeries and in the program itself, and now lead in the five-state region we serve. We are seen as an essential partner by obstetricians and maternal-fetal medicine specialists regionally. We consulted on 600 complicated pregnancies five years ago, and this year we’ll consult on 3,000. The conditions we see represent the most complex conditions treated at Lurie Children’s, like the patients with bad heart and lung disease or spina bifida.
Five years ago, Lurie Children’s didn’t even offer fetal echocardiograms or fetal ultrasounds. Today, our imaging center is unrivalled in the Midwest. Specialists often send patients for imaging just to get our opinion even when they have their own imaging center. This year we’ll do about 900 echoes and 2,400 ultrasounds.
The quality of our program has made us a destination for trainees from around the country. We’ve had teams from top 10 pediatric hospitals come to learn our surgical techniques, and regular requests from subspecialty training programs in the Midwest to send their trainees to us. We now have a fellowship in fetal surgery, one of the few in the nation. We’re proud to be training the next generation of interventionalists. Hopefully, they can be our partners in fetal medicine in years ahead.
All of this wouldn’t have been possible without fantastic philanthropic partners like NRG, The Regenstein Foundation, the Murley family and many others.
Q: What would you like to do that you’re not doing now?
A: Many things, but I’d point to treatment for congenital heart disease or neurologic diseases where the damage occurs before birth. We already see a lot of congenital heart patients but there's a handful of treatment possibilities that we're not doing here currently and would like to start doing soon. Many patients could benefit from prenatal cardiac intervention to prevent the destructive changes resulting from an abnormal aortic valve. After the structural damage to the heart occurs, the surgeons are less likely to be able to repair it after birth and get the patient to a good functional level. As a result, many of these kids will need a heart transplant. However, it would be amazing to avoid a heart transplant with an intervention before birth, perhaps through needle-based procedures or maybe with drugs or gene therapy. That's where we'd like to head for heart disease and other diseases. Also, some neurologic diseases develop in utero and cause damage that results in lifelong disability. It would be life-changing if we could avoid that with a needle-based procedure before birth. It’s possible and we should be doing that here.
Q: What’s your vision for the future?
A: We need to lead, not just practice fetal medicine. Our goal is to be the world leader in multi-center research and innovation.
We will do this with innovative therapies for the treatment of heart, blood, brain and kidney diseases. In the next five years we want to embark on in-utero hematopoietic cellular transplantation and in utero gene therapy which have been the core research focus of my laboratory for the past 25 years. When we do those things, we will move the needle in a big way, not just for a handful of our patients but for a larger portion of our patients than we ever thought was possible.
Ultimately, the quest for a better treatment, a better cure, a better outcome — that is endless. That can never go away and that is what drives us to do better every year, every day.