UA College of Medicine Graduate Returns to Care for Children’s Hearts
Spencer Cummins was born on Aug. 20, 2014, right on time, and weighing a healthy 8 pounds, 4 ounces. But Spencer also arrived with a double knot in his umbilical cord, his skin blue from oxygen deprivation.
Doctors at Northwest Medical Center immediately contacted the pediatric cardiology team at the University of Arizona Medical Center – University Campus. Within a few hours, Michael and Pamela Cummins received devastating news. An echocardiogram showed their son had multiple heart defects. Spencer was in congestive heart failure. There was little hope he could survive.
But he has survived. And for that, his parents are immeasurably grateful to doctors at Northwest, UAMC and Phoenix Children’s Hospital, where Spencer underwent open-heart surgery when he was six days old. They also are grateful to Dr. Scott Klewer, a 1991 graduate of the UA College of Medicine, now UA professor of pediatrics and chief of the Division of Pediatric Cardiology and former chief of staff at UAMC, who has overseen Spencer's care since his birth.
"As far as we're concerned," Pamela Cummins said, "Scott saved Spencer's life."
Klewer grew up in Tempe and did his undergraduate work at Arizona State University. He wanted to be a doctor in part because of his father, who died from testicular cancer when Scott was a year old. In high school, he developed "a deep appreciation for biomedical research," inspired by a story his mother, a nurse, brought home about how researchers had found a cancer drug, cisplatin, that was revolutionizing the treatment of testicular cancer.
"I wanted to make a difference like that," Klewer recalled. "I found myself gravitating toward something heart-related during my basic science years. I did some research and really fell in love with the cardiovascular system."
He also wanted to work with children, so on the advice of his UA mentors, he did his residency and fellowship at the University of Iowa, known for its outstanding pediatric cardiology and research programs.
It was a big adjustment for Scott and his wife, Julie, who married after his first year of medical school. Snowy winters were fun at first, especially for their sons, Jake and Matt, who were born in Iowa City. But when Dr. Fayez Ghishan, then the new head of the UA pediatrics program, offered Scott a faculty appointment 1996, the offer was quickly accepted.
Fast forward to today, Julie Klewer is a CPA, Matt is a sophomore at Duke University, and Jake started medical school at the UA College of Medicine – Tucson last August.
Twenty years ago, said Klewer, there were few options for a baby born with the kinds of congenital heart defects Spencer was born with. Today, about 90 percent of babies affected by congenital heart disease are expected to live into adulthood.
"A lot of what we do in pediatric cardiology today is to palliate complex congenital heart disease, because a true cure may not be possible," he said. "But we are providing this care in a much better way than we could before."
That's largely due to research, including Klewer’s studies of heart valve development and defects such as Spencer's – research supported by the National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association. Klewer also is a researcher with the UA Sarver Heart Center, where he is the Peggy M. Barrett Endowed Chair for Congenital Heart Disease in Adults, and the UA Steele Children’s Research Center.
Klewer sees Spencer in clinic every two or three weeks. Earlier this month, he and the Cummins family – including Spencer's 3-year-old brother Liam – met to talk about Spencer's progress.
"You were very clear with us at the beginning that things weren't looking good for Spencer, but you also told us there was hope," Pamela Cummins told Klewer. "That meant a lot to us. We knew that with you overseeing his care, that we had a lot going for us during that awful time."
"And you guys were great," Klewer told the parents. "You have faced some really tough days. There was an overwhelming amount of information for you to grasp, and you took it all in stride. You were fantastic."
Smiles lit up the room as Klewer held Spencer in his arms. Spencer tugged on his doctor's stethoscope – the sort of thing any 5-month-old would do. But this time, it's amazing.
"This kid's a rock star," Klewer said.
And yet, Spencer's battle isn’t over. He undoubtedly faces more surgery. He is small for his age, not unusual for a baby with heart defects. But now he is breathing on his own, drinking from a bottle and intrigued by the people and things around him. That's more than Pamela and Michael Cummins dared hope for five months ago.
"We call him our miracle baby," Michael Cummins says. "We have had people praying for him all the time, and we are confident these prayers are being answered."
"It's hard to say what his future is going to be," Cummins said. "But right now, we're so happy to have him where we have him."