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What Is Pulmonary Atresia? Jimmy Kimmel's Son Was Born With The Condition

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Late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel is known for being lighthearted and funny, but his Monday night monologue actually brought him to tears. In the emotional thirteen-minute segment, Kimmel explained to the audience that hours after his wife, Molly, gave birth to their second child on April 21, they learned that their son had been born with a heart defect, and that he'd require surgery to save his life. What is pulmonary atresia? Jimmy Kimmel's son was born with the condition, and according to the Centers for Disease Control, it's something that is estimated to affect about 1 out of every 10,000 babies born in the United States.

In general, pulmonary atresia refers to a type of heart defect involving the pulmonary valve, which is the valve responsible for sending blood from the right ventricle of the heart to the lungs via the pulmonary artery, according to the CDC. That's important because blood needs to be sent to the lungs in order to become rich enough in oxygen before being pumped out to the rest of the body, but in babies born with pulmonary atresia, the necessary valve didn't actually form properly. The defect is sometimes discovered on an ultrasound during pregnancy, but if not (like in Kimmel's case) a baby with undiagnosed pulmonary atresia may experience trouble breathing soon after birth, or may develop a bluish color to their skin (called cyanosis) as a result of a lack of oxygen.

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In his monologue, Kimmel shared that his son, Billy, had actually begun turning blue after his birth, but it wasn't something that anyone noticed at first. After his wife had been taken to recovery, and their family and young daughter had joined them, a nurse realized that something didn't seem quite right with the infant, and further testing revealed that he actually had a series of four undiagnosed cardiac abnormalities, referred to as tetralogy of Fallot. According to The Children's Heart Clinic, tetralogy of Fallot (TOF) is "the most common cyanotic heart defect and occurs in 5-10 percent of all children with congenital heart disease." Out of that 5 to 10 percent of babies, about 20 percent of them will, like Billy, also have pulmonary atresia.

According to the CDC, most babies with the condition require surgery soon after birth to correct the defect, and that was certainly the case with Kimmel's son, who underwent surgery a week ago. According to Boston Children's Hospital, that surgery — which can in some cases be performed as late as six months after birth — is designed to create a connection between the arteries and the right ventricle of the heart so that blood can flow properly.

The good news for Kimmel and his family is that Billy's surgery was successful, and while he will need follow-up surgeries and lifelong monitoring by a cardiologist, most infants born with TOF live "active, healthy lives" after surgery, according to the CDC. And so far, that certainly seems to be the case: during the segment, Kimmel shared a number of cute snaps of his son looking healthy and well, and also made a point to thank the doctors and nurses individually by name who helped save his son's life.

Another important point Kimmel made sure to make before wrapping up his heartfelt speech? The connection between his son's birth and the very real implications of the government's proposed plan to replace the Affordable Care Act. As Kimmel noted,

We were brought up to believe that we live in the greatest country in the world. But until a few years ago millions and millions of us had no access to health insurance at all. You know, before 2014, if you were born with congenital heart disease like my son was, there was a good chance you'd never be able to get health insurance because you had a pre-existing condition. You were born with a pre-existing condition, and if your parents didn't have medical insurance you might not live long enough to even get denied because [of it].

Kimmel then got choked up once again as he explained that access to healthcare really shouldn't be such a controversial issue:

If your baby is going to die and it doesn't have to, it shouldn't matter how much money you make. I think that's something that whether you're a Republican or a Democrat or something else, we all agree on that, right? We need to make sure that the people who are supposed to represent us ... understand that very clearly ... Don't let their partisan squabbles divide us on something every decent person wants.

There's no question that what Kimmel and his wife went through after their son's birth is one of the scariest and most heartbreaking experiences that any parent can go through. It's also clear though that it was a profound experience for the late night host: in his emotional wrap-up, Kimmel told the audience that he "saw a lot of families" in the hospital, and that it made him realize the reality that a lot of them face when it comes to the financial burden of medical care. Noting that "no parent should ever have to decide if they can afford to save their child's life," Kimmel concluded by saying that "it shouldn't happen, not here." And after joking that he promised he wouldn't be spending the rest of the show in tears, he concluded by asking viewers to send "a prayer for, or send positive thoughts, to the families with children who are still in the hospital now, because they need it."

As any parent whose child was born with a potentially life-threatening condition knows, there's nothing at all easy about getting the diagnosis. But thanks to advances in cardiac medicine, the good news for babies like Billy is that tetralogy of Fallot with pulmonary atresia can be treated and managed. It might not ever be something any family deserves to go through, but as Kimmel has learned, it also doesn't mean that you won't still be able to have the perfect, thriving baby you'd hoped for.