Tetralogy of Fallot (TOF) is a combination of four congenital heart defects — ventricular septal defect, pulmonary stenosis, right ventricular hypertrophy and overriding aorta — that changes the way blood flows to the lungs and through the heart.
Surgeons at Norton Children’s Heart Institute, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine, repair tetralogy of Fallot (pronounced fah-LO) with open heart surgery soon after birth or later in infancy. Some infants need more than one heart surgery.
Most babies recover from TOF and go on to lead full lives. Still, it’s a serious condition that will need regular follow-up visits with a heart specialist.
As the leading providers of pediatric heart care in Louisville and Southern Indiana, our specialists are experienced with successfully repairing TOF.
The board-certified and fellowship-trained specialists at Norton Children’s Heart Institute have the skills and experience to provide a pinpoint diagnosis and develop a customized treatment plan for you and your child.
The four related conditions that make up TOF are:
A ventricular septal defect is a hole in the wall that separates the ventricles, the two lower chambers of the heart. Because of the hole, the high-oxygen blood from the left ventricle and the low-oxygen blood from the right ventricle can mix. This can lead to either too little or too much blood flow going to the lungs.
Stenosis is a narrowing of the valve that connects the right ventricle to the pulmonary artery, which connects to the lungs.
With pulmonary stenosis, the heart has to work harder and there is less blood traveling to the lungs. Sometimes infants with TOF have pulmonary atresia instead, which is a complete closure of the pulmonary valve.
Right ventricular hypertrophy (hi-PER-truh-fee) is a thickening of the muscular wall of the right ventricle. The thickened wall can partly block blood from flowing through the pulmonary valve.
This means the artery that carries high-oxygen blood to the body is out of place — arching over both ventricles instead of just the left. The misplacement allows some low-oxygen blood into the aorta and out to the body. Low-oxygen blood should pass through the pulmonary artery and the lungs to pick up oxygen before circulating to the body.
In most cases of TOF, not enough blood goes to the lungs. This low-oxygen blood then circulates to the rest of the body. Babies with TOF often have a condition called cyanosis — a blue or purple tint to the skin, lips and fingernails.
If TOF isn’t treated, a child may have:
Children whose TOF isn’t repaired usually become increasingly blue over time and have difficulty participating in sports and other physical activities. Most babies who have surgery to correct the defect do very well and can participate in normal activities.
Cyanosis is a very common sign. Healthy babies also sometimes have bluish skin around the mouth or eyes from prominent veins under the skin. Babies who have low oxygen levels in the blood usually have blue lips and tongues in addition to bluish skin.
A child with TOF might have sudden episodes of deep cyanosis, called “hypercyanotic spells” or “Tet spells,” during crying or feeding. Older children who have Tet spells often will instinctively squat down, which helps to stop the spell.
Other signs include:
The specific cause of TOF isn’t always known. TOF occurs as the baby’s heart develops in the early weeks of pregnancy. In some cases, there are genetic causes of TOF — for example, children with Down syndrome or DiGeorge syndrome are more likely to have TOF. Someone born with TOF is more likely to have a child or sibling with it. Each year, roughly 1 out of every 2,500 babies born in the United States has the condition.
Doctors might do several tests to find out if a baby has TOF and to get more details about the baby’s heart and blood vessels, including:
The cardiothoracic surgeons at Norton Children’s Heart Institute repair TOF through open heart surgery soon after birth or later in infancy. The timing depends on the baby’s health, weight and severity of the defects.
The two surgical options are: