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Single Ventricle Program at Texas Children's Heart Center

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Nurse practitioner Kerry Sembera plays a critical role in helping babies and their families

It’s 7 a.m. and Kerry Sembera is hard at work doing what she loves most — visiting young patients and their families in Texas Children’s cardiac intensive care unit (CICU). Kerry is a nurse practitioner at Texas Children’s Heart Center, and it’s a role she’s enjoyed and excelled at for almost two years.

As a critical member of the Heart Center’s Single Ventricle Program, Kerry works to meet the complex needs of babies born with only one functioning heart ventricle. Often diagnosed during pregnancy and treated after birth with one or more surgeries, these defects need to be corrected quickly by skilled experts.

Though Kerry’s role doesn’t involve actually fixing her patients’ damaged hearts, it does help ensure their healthy hearts continue to beat normally for many years to come.

Kerry’s work with families begins when a baby is first diagnosed. Sometimes the initial diagnosis occurs during pregnancy — but whenever it happens, it’s a critical time, and Kerry immediately begins working closely with the family to educate them about their baby’s condition, probable surgical treatment and ongoing care. She continues this vital interaction after the baby is born and throughout the first year of life.

“These diagnoses can be very overwhelming for families, and the information we give parents can seem like a lot at one time,” Kerry explains. “I make sure they have a great understanding of what’s going on with their child’s care and treatment plan. Providing education is a big part of what I do. It makes families feel more at ease and well-prepared for what lies ahead.”

Though each child’s treatment journey is unique, single ventricle defects often require two or three surgeries. The first surgery varies, depending on the diagnosis, but the second and third surgeries are usually the same no matter the kind of heart defect. Surgeries can include a Norwood procedure, in which the surgeon builds a new, larger aorta; a Glenn procedure, which involves disconnecting the superior vena cava from the heart and connecting it to the pulmonary artery; and a Fontan procedure, in which the surgeon disconnects the inferior vena cava from the heart and connects it to a pulmonary artery using a conduit. The goal of these procedures is to enable children born with single ventricle defects to lead active, fulfilling lives.

Much of Kerry’s day is spent with patients and families in the hospital’s CICU, where babies go after surgery, and in the acute care unit, where they spend time before they go home to await their next surgery. Kerry’s close monitoring and interaction is vital during the period between surgeries, known as the “inter-stage period,” because it is the most vulnerable time for patients and their conditions can change from day to day.

After patients have surgery and are discharged, Kerry and her team see them weekly in the program’s outpatient clinic. There, patients are meticulously monitored and families receive ongoing education and support to help their children thrive. “This is a fragile patient population,” Kerry says, “so we follow them very closely.”

For Kerry, close follow-up means being available to her patients anytime they need her. She even carries the “single ventricle pager,” an old-style pager that allows patients to “give her a beep” if they have a question, day or night.

“I love those phone calls because it means my patients trust me and they want to reach out,” she says. “It also means they want to do what’s best for their child.”

Though working directly with cardiac surgery patients is her passion, Kerry has worked at Texas Children’s for 20 years and is no stranger to other roles within the hospital. Before her current position, she was part of the leadership team at Texas Children’s cardiac intensive care unit. She enjoyed the position but missed the more frequent interactions with patients and families that nursing provides. Feeling she had a lot to offer families, Kerry jumped at the opportunity to serve patients of the Single Ventricle Program.

“I felt my expertise would really benefit families,” she says. “They’re coming here during the most vulnerable and stressful time of their lives. I knew I could add value to their care.”

Her team agrees that Kerry adds tremendous value. “Kerry is the heartbeat of our single ventricle program,” said Dr. Rocky Tsang, Medical Director of the program. “She walks with our patients and their family from the beginning of their single ventricle journey, sometimes even before they are born. She becomes their companion and friend every step of the way.”

As a native Texan, Kerry is proud to work for Texas Children’s, a place she says is “synonymous” with great care.

“I wanted to be part of something great, and that means being a part of Texas Children’s Heart Center.”

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