MANKATO — Finding out your baby has a congenital heart defect is game changing news for an expecting mother.

Knowing as early as possible, however, gives them the best chance to prepare for what’s ahead.

A training at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato Saturday gave sonographers from across the region hands-on training to better identify any defects in utero.

Mayo collaborated with Lasting Imprint — a nonprofit started in Mankato which advocates for families affected by children born with congenital heart defects — on the training. After a lecture portion, 10 sonographers from Mayo facilities in southwest Minnesota performed hands-on training with ultrasounds on four pregnant volunteers.

Jill VanEps, radiology manager at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato, said sonographers have long been trained to look for defects during 20-week ultrasounds. But Saturday’s training helps the medical staff understand the nuances of the equipment while providing a deeper understanding of what they see on the screens.

“Ideally they can go back to their next 20-week exam that they’re going to do on the next patient they see and do the exact same study they were doing before, but allow them to have a better eye for these anomalies that they’re seeing,” she said.

Detecting defects can be difficult for different reasons. The baby’s heart at that stage of development is about the size of a quarter for one. The equipment also displays a different image with each subtle movement of the probe on the woman’s belly, VanEps said.

“It’s very much ultrasonographer dependent on exactly how they’re holding the probe and getting the image,” she said.

The preciseness of the equipment was evident in one of the training rooms. Sonographer Danielle Ambrose ran the probing equipment carefully along the expecting mother’s belly, causing the view to shift with the slightest movement. Ambrose and the training staff — which included Jennie Durant and Jill Beithon, each certified trainers in sonography equipment — zoned in on the beating heart to see blood flow through each of the chambers.

Afterward, Ambrose said the sonographers were excited for the training, as it will inspire further confidence in detecting any abnormalities in the babies.

“All of the basic views we give on every single anatomy exam, I think we’ll feel more confident and comfortable with views to diagnose what we need to,” she said.

VanEps praised the sonographers for their willingness to take part in the training.

“We have a close-knit group that is very passionate about finding these heart anomalies and helping out these kiddos,” she said.

Saturday’s training was the third offered by Lasting Imprint in the state. Kristen Thomas, regional coordinator for the nonprofit, said she knows personally how important early detection of heart defects can be. Her daughter, Amayha, was born without a right pulmonary artery.

“She had five to 10 more complications added on the heart defect because it wasn’t diagnosed,” she said. “If you’re not catching it in utero and it’s not caught at birth, they’re being sent home, and in my case my daughter stopped breathing.”

Now 7, Amayha’s still recovering from the after effects of the undiagnosed defect. She’s had three open-heart surgeries since birth, and will need a heart transplant at some point.

Thomas said she thinks it’s important not to blame anyone for undetected congenital heart defects. It’s a problem that can happen despite everyone’s best intentions. Rather, she said, offering continuing education like the one Saturday is the best way to prevent it.

VanEps said the training of sonographers from all over the southwest region of the state is welcomed because it builds on existing knowledge.

“The southwest Minnesota region is all represented today, so we can stretch this out to the whole region,” she said of the training’s impact. She commended Lasting Imprint for providing the pregnant volunteers for hands-on training.

At 23 weeks pregnant, Jennifer Svien of Mankato was one such volunteer. She’s already had her 20-week ultrasound — finding out her baby is a girl — and received the all clear.

Knowing more trained medical staff in the area will have the advanced training with the ultrasounds put her mind at ease for both her herself and other future mothers, she said.

“It’s very comforting knowing that they’re taking more time to train on such important things as heart defects,” she said.

Follow Brian Arola @BrianArolaMFP.

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