To understand congenital heart defects, it’s helpful to know how the normal heart works. There is a complex sequence of events that result in a well formed heart at birth and disruption of any portion may result in a defect.
The heart has two sides, separated by an inner wall called the septum. The right side of the heart pumps blood to the lungs to pick up oxygen. Then, oxygen-rich blood returns from the lungs to the left side of the heart, and the left side pumps it to the body.
The heart is made up of four different blood-filled areas, and each of these areas is called a chamber. There are two chambers on each side of the heart. One chamber is on the top and one chamber is on the bottom. The two chambers on top are called the atria (say: AY-tree-uh). If you’re talking only about one, call it an atrium. The atria are the chambers that fill with the blood returning to the heart from the body and lungs. The heart has a left atrium and a right atrium.
The atria are the two upper chambers that collect blood as it comes into the heart. The ventricles are the two lower chambers that pump blood out of the heart to the lungs or other parts of the body.
The heart has a left ventricle and a right ventricle. Their job is to squirt out the blood to the body and lungs. Running down the middle of the heart is a thick wall of muscle called the septum (say: SEP-tum). The septum’s job is to separate the left side and the right side of the heart.
The atria and ventricles work as a team — the atria fill with blood, then dump it into the ventricles. The ventricles then squeeze, pumping blood out of the heart. While the ventricles are squeezing, the atria refill and get ready for the next contraction. So when the blood gets pumped, how does it know which way to go?
Well, your blood relies on four special valves inside the heart. A valve lets something in and keeps it there by closing — think of walking through a door. The door shuts behind you and keeps you from going backward.
Two of the heart valves are the mitral (say: MY-trul) valve and the tricuspid (say: try-KUS-pid) valve. They let blood flow from the atria to the ventricles. The other two are called the aortic (say: ay-OR-tik) valve and pulmonary (say: PUL-muh-ner-ee) valve, and they’re in charge of controlling the flow as the blood leaves the heart. These valves all work to keep the blood flowing forward. They open up to let the blood move ahead, then they close quickly to keep the blood from flowing backward.
A Healthy Heart Cross Section
You probably guessed that the blood just doesn’t slosh around your body once it leaves the heart. It moves through many tubes called arteries and veins, which together are called blood vessels. These blood vessels are attached to the heart. The blood vessels that carry blood away from the heart are called arteries. The ones that carry blood back to the heart are called veins.
The movement of the blood through the heart and around the body is called circulation (say: sur-kyoo-LAY-shun), and your heart is really good at it — it takes less than 60 seconds to pump blood to every cell in your body.
Your body needs this steady supply of blood to keep it working right. Blood delivers oxygen to all the body’s cells. To stay alive, a person needs healthy, living cells. Without oxygen, these cells would die. If that oxygen-rich blood doesn’t circulate as it should, a person could die.
The left side of your heart sends that oxygen-rich blood out to the body. The body takes the oxygen out of the blood and uses it in your body’s cells. When the cells use the oxygen, they make carbon dioxide and other stuff that gets carried away by the blood. It’s like the blood delivers lunch to the cells and then has to pick up the trash!
The returning blood enters the right side of the heart. The right ventricle pumps the blood to the lungs for a little freshening up. In the lungs, carbon dioxide is removed from the blood and sent out of the body when we exhale. What’s next? An inhale, of course, and a fresh breath of oxygen that can enter the blood to start the process again. And remember, it all happens in about a minute!