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From Open-Heart Surgery to Surfing the Waves Once Again

Oliver Merlob, 15, Is Back on His Feet, and His Surfboard, Thanks to His Congenital Heart Team at Cedars-Sinai

Just moments after Calabasas ninth grader Oliver Merlob was born, he was whisked away for open-heart surgery to treat a congenital heart defect. Little did his parents know it would be the beginning of a lifelong relationship.

The relationship forged at birth between the Merlob family and Evan Zahn, MD, a leading congenital heart expert who serves as director of the Guerin Family Congenital Heart Program in the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai, has been at the heart of Oliver’s journey throughout his life. This was especially true a few months ago when he underwent his second – and possibly his last – open heart surgery at Cedars-Sinai.

Today, Merlob is back surfing waves in Malibu, attending virtual classes, completing homework assignments, and somehow finding time to play a regular round of tennis.

“Watching Oliver grow and thrive has been one of the highlights of my career,” said Zahn. “Caring for patients like Oliver and his family – from the time they are diagnosed in utero through the arch of their entire adult life – is truly incredible. It’s quite an honor.”

Unlike children’s hospitals and other congenital heart programs that only care for patients through adolescence, the Guerin Family Congenital Heart Program treats patients from birth, through adolescence, and for the course of their entire adult lives.

“Our patients receive care for their entire lifetime, by a singular multidisciplinary team that has literally known them their entire lives,” said Zahn. “It creates such a special bond between a patient, their family and their care team.”

This unique model, allowing medical teams to build deep and meaningful relationships with their patients often brings comfort to those undergoing complex and often difficult diagnoses and procedures.

“I never feel scared or nervous, because I always have Dr. Zahn to guide me,” said Merlob. “He has always been there for me.”

Since his initial open-heart surgery, Merlob has undergone countless procedures, tests and exams to treat his pulmonary atresia, a congenital defect that happens when the heart doesn’t form as it should in the womb.

The condition specifically affects the opening of the pulmonary valve, which connects the right ventricle and the main pulmonary artery, which carries blood to the lungs. With pulmonary atresia, blood can’t flow to the lungs.

“Oliver has a sparkling personality,” said Richard Kim, MD, director of congenital heart surgery at Cedars-Sinai, who performed Merlob’s most recent surgery. “Upon meeting him, you would never guess all that he has been through medically. He focuses on the good and makes every experience – even open-heart surgery – a positive thing.”

Merlob’s latest procedure was “especially complex,” according to Kim.

“These catheterization procedures kept Oliver healthy and well for 15 years, but over time, they can cause scarring and calcification around the heart and major blood vessels,” said Kim. “Because the major arteries to his legs could not be used in his case, the surgery to safely replace his valve without injuring his heart required the use of the heart-lung machine and techniques borrowed from operations on newborn infants and children.”

It was a challenge, Kim said, but not uncommon.

“This type of complex, high-risk surgery is where we shine,” said Kim. “We perform surgeries like these very often and are equipped to handle all of the unique nuances that come with them.”

Patients treated in the program receive the most sophisticated treatment available, including advances in nonsurgical techniques like those Merlob has previously benefited from.

“Knowing and caring for patients from childhood to adulthood is nothing short of a privilege,” said Kim. “And Oliver is certainly one of those special, beautiful cases that makes what we do so rewarding.”

Read more on the Cedars-Sinai Blog: Matters of the Heart: Evan Zahn, MD