Clarissa Kraayenbrink—staff writer
Not only is February Black History Month, but it is also American Heart Month. And Feb. 7-14 just so happens to be Congenital Heart Disease (CHD) Awareness Week. Nearly one in every 100 babies (or 40,000 babies per year) are born with CHD and it is the number one cause of birth defect-related deaths with no cure available. I was one of those one in 100 babies.
When I was born, I was cyanotic, which meant my skin had a bluish tint to it. The doctors in the hospital where I was born discovered that the deoxygenated blood in my limbs was not flowing back to my heart and lungs to become oxygenated again. Thus, I was airlifted across the state to the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital and Clinics, where I received my first open heart surgery at three days old. I had two more at seven months and 22 months. When I was four, I was the first person in Iowa to get a CardioSeal device in my heart to seal the hole the doctors left. I was ultimately diagnosed with Transposition of the Great Arteries, or TGA. Even now, at 22 years old, it still affects me and always will.
Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to be as active as all the other kids. I played low-intensity basketball in elementary school and two years of volleyball in middle and high school at my small Christian school. I always dreamed of playing basketball all the way through my school years. That dream was shattered by middle school when my cardiologist told me I could not participate in competitive basketball in high school.
Since then, I still try to remain active on my own. In fact, this past fall, I completed my first 5K. It was mostly a combination of walking and running, but I crossed that finish line. I was so happy that I had decided to do this 5K back in July and started training that summer and fall. This was something that I never thought I could achieve, had you asked me even a year ago.
Since I wasn’t able to participate in athletics much, it has cultivated in me a desire to work in professional sports. I currently work for the Sioux City Bandits arena football team and my aspirations are to get to the NFL or MLB level someday. I love sports and would like to be able to be around them in my professional life as well.
I bet you didn’t know that Olympic skateboarder Shaun White has a CHD. He was born with Tetralogy of Fallot, which is four-fold: a hole between the lower chambers of the heart, an obstruction between the heart and the lungs, the aorta is covering the aforementioned hole and the muscle around the lower right chamber is thickened. All of this means that the heart sends out oxygen-poor blood to the rest of the body.
A more recent case you may recall is late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel. His son was born last year with TOF, which he tearfully shared about on one of his shows last spring. TOF occurs in five out of every 10,000 babies, so it is pretty rare.
Although 15 percent of babies born with CHD won’t see their 18th birthday, many babies go on to lead fairly normal lives. Even though CHD babies have to have regular checkups with their cardiologists, it often doesn’t hold them back. Although White is an extreme example – not many CHD babies will go on to become Olympic athletes, but they can still lead active and fulfilling lives.
I see my cardiologist every year and will for my entire life. Also, no matter how old I get, I will always go to a pediatric cardiologist. Trust me, it’s already getting weird, being the only one above the age of 16 sitting in a waiting room that’s filled with babies, young kids and all the toys and entertainment that comes along with them. Not to say it doesn’t come with its perks though – all the doctors and nurses are super sweet because they’re always working with kids. At my last appointment, I was put in a room with a whiteboard equipped with dry erase markers and a mini table and chairs. My mom and I were about to draw something until a nurse came in… Awkward.
February may also be the month of love as it contains Valentine’s Day. Two things these symbolistic months have in common is the color red. The first Friday in February is always Wear Red Day, which I participated in for the first time this year. Now that I’m getting older, I’ve taken more ownership of my condition and have done my own research on it, including lots of reading about American Heart Month.
I will still have obstacles to overcome, new ones popping up as I get older. But I know that God has a purpose and a plan for my life, far beyond what I could imagine. So for now, I just take it year-by-year, dealing with any obstacles as they come, and trust in God’s plan. I have no idea where he is taking me in life, but I can’t wait to see. I’m not letting this CHD hold me back.