Testing helps determine if children with heart defects can exercise safely

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OVERLAND PARK, Kan. -- As we approach February, American Heart Month, a reminder: Many kids have heart defects. Advances in surgery and medication mean most are thriving, but there's always the question of whether the child should exercise.

15-year-old Jalen Kimmel's heart is being put to the test at a Children's Mercy Hospital clinic. As a pre-schooler, Jalen had surgery to correct a heart defect. She later became a basketball player, but one day at practice, she had a scare.

"She said 'Dad, I'm not feeling good' and she was very pale," recalled her father, Randy Kimmel.

Jalen added, "Dr. Simon, my cardiologist, told me to basically stop doing everything."

Her father said, "It was emotional. Still is."

Eventually, doctors found Jalen's problem. It was another heart defect, a long mitral valve that under stress could block blood flow and potentially cause a heart attack. Jalen went on medication to reduce the stress, but there was still the question of whether she could safely exercise.

That's where maximal exercise testing comes in. Kids are asked to exercise as hard as they can while exercise physiologists look at their blood pressure, oxygen saturation, heart rate and rhythm.

"Based on the results of those testing, the physician is able to help figure out the appropriate amount of exercise the patient can do safely," said Kelli Teson, an exercise physiologist, who added, "The majority are able to exercise as they wish and that's what we are actually wanting them to do as we know aerobic exercise is very important for your heart health and the more we can get these kids doing, the better."

Jalen said, "My last exercise test was the best I've ever had."

She still can't play basketball, but she can do most other things active teens do. Last year, she even jogged in the Heart Walk 5K. Her dad was beside her monitoring her heart.

"Got to the finish line, watched her cross the line. It was amazing," he said.

It was a real triumph of the heart.

Teson says some parents of kids who have or had heart defects may overprotect them. The testing helps them see that their kids can exercise safely.