Pediatric Imaging: One Piece of the Heart Puzzle

Two girls stand next to each other in the UVA pediatric radiology office

Having an MR or CT of the heart can be a scary experience, especially when you’re little. Here’s how the pediatric imaging staff at UVA help kids feel safe during the whole process. If you want to help your child prepare for their imaging exam, consider visiting our “for kids” articles on MRI and CT machines.

Pediatric Imaging: One Piece of the Heart Puzzle

The University of Virginia Health System is one of two hospitals in Virginia that perform heart surgery in children, technically known as pediatric cardiothoracic surgery. For this complicated surgery, UVA has a multidisciplinary team made up of pediatric cardiologists, thoracic surgeons, radiologists, trainees and fellows in pediatric cardiology, NICU attendings, pediatric ICU attendings, managers, social workers, and nurses. Each Wednesday, the whole team meets to decide what treatment is best for each child.

Pediatric imaging plays an important part in the process. MR and CT scans give the surgeons information that tells them where to cut, what they will find, and what they need to do about the problem. But for kids, getting an MR or CT scan can be really scary. The newness of the big equipment, strange noises, and busy strangers in scrubs and white coats makes many children nervous.

So what happens when your child comes for an MRI or CT of the heart? What do the different scans mean? How will the staff at UVA keep your child safe and comfortable?

A boy and a girl look at stickers with a nurse in UVA's pediatric radiology departmentMRI of the Heart

MRI stands for Magnetic Resonance Imaging. It takes approximately one hour to complete. It tells the doctor about how the heart is functioning. For example, an MRI can tell the doctor how much blood is going through a certain vessel. MRI is also good at differentiating between normal and abnormal tissues. This is all important information for the doctor to have as he decides which surgery he needs to perform and, perhaps more importantly, when to perform it.

Though an MRI exam is long, the benefit is that it doesn’t use any radiation. However, because it is long, your child might need sedation. Dr. Patrick Norton explains, “They can’t sit still. It’s a contained space and it’s difficult for them.” Working with the MRI team, children at UVA as young as eight years old have successfully completed an exam without sedation. If a child is able to stay still, they can watch movies during the exam using a special pair of glasses that reflect the movie from the wall behind them. As a parent, you will work with the MRI team to determine what is best for your child.

A male doctor and female nurse talk with a boy in a waiting room in the UVA pediatric radiology departmentCT of the Heart

CT stands for Computed Tomography. A CT shows the doctor a lot about the structure of the heart. It shows the anatomy—what the vessels are and how they’re connected. The scan itself is very fast, sometimes only 50 milliseconds.

CT does require radiation, which is concerning to most parents. However, our radiologists have the best and latest equipment and our technicians are highly skilled at positioning children at just the right angle to get the images they need without exposing them to unnecessary radiation. “We give them a little radiation, but with the radiation protocols we have here, it’s very, very low,” said Dr. Klaus Hagspiel. We call this “imaging gently,” meaning that our radiologists use the lowest possible dose of radiation for children since their bodies are more fragile than adults.

Two girls play with wood cars in UVA's child radiology officeComing Alongside Your Family

We want your child to have the best imaging experience possible. In many cases, families will work with a Child Life Specialist who can help a child prepare for the unknown or scary experiences they are about to face. From deciding what kind of imaging your child needs to helping your child through the exam, UVA is with you for every step.

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