We’re not your classic heroes. We’re the other guys. – Mystery Men (1999)
The other day I discovered a Facebook based Heart Defect group engaged in a pointless mental exercise: They were listing celebrities that are connected to the CHD Community in some way that they feel should become a “Congenital Heart Defect representative”. Once that happened, “awareness” would be raised, money for research would come pouring in, and we’d all be saved.
Oh good grief.
I’ve seen this happen before; the group concentrates its efforts on recruiting that one big megastar and ignores the people who are actually doing the job. Because true advocacy for an issue is difficult work. You don’t just stage a few events, look good for the camera, and recite the proper sound bites. It takes time, and the job is detail oriented grunt work. The i has to be dotted and the t crossed correctly and that is your job. Long hours, very little sleep, and the “pay” is a pittance, if anything. You do this because you believe.
And by the way – if all you are doing is “raising awareness”, then you are not helping. That young mother doesn’t know Heart Defects is the most common birth defect… and she doesn’t care. What she does know is that her child is very sick and the doctors are throwing words at her she doesn’t understand. She wants someone who can explain this to her in simple English and give her some hint of the future. And even if the future is dire, she wants to talk to someone who will tell her the truth, and gently let her know that sometimes its OK to say goodbye.
I’m honored to know people like this and count them as friends; I’ve also shared some of their stories on Funky Heart! over the past two years. You probably haven’t heard of these people anywhere else. They don’t mind; because they aren’t seeking personal glory.
The most “famous” Heart Warrior I know might be Heather, a CHDer who saw an ad in a magazine for a TV show seeking women with heart disease. From the wording of the ad Heather realized they were looking for people with Acquired Heart Disease and ignoring CHDers. Heather got in contact with the show producers and gave them a piece of her mind – and as a result, appeared on the TV show How to Look Good Naked!
Then there is George, a retired doctor with Tetralogy of Fallot who spoke at Lobby Day 2010. I always thought George was kind of reserved, but I found out he just waits until the proper moment. When he got through speaking we were ready to tear the walls down! “One day, Congenital Heart Defect survivors are going to live to be eighty, ninety, and even one hundred years old,” he said. George is also doing his part to keep Heart Warriors going – During Lobby Day he took a young adult/older teenager under his wing. Near the end of the day George told him “Remember what we’ve done here. One day this will be your job.”
Karen T. Chavez and Kim Rooks serve as Co-Directors of the Broken Hearts of the Big Bend. Heart Defect Awareness isn’t always the answer, there are times when what is needed is Education and Support. If you have a Cardiac Kid in the Tallahassee (Florida) area, Broken Hearts members can walk you through what may come next – and be right there with you, lending a helping hand when you need it. Why? Because we’ve all been there.
Colorado’s Amanda Adams has a Cardiac Kid; when he was born she could find very little information about his defect and almost no support. Frustrated, she decided that no mother should ever be in such a situation… and began the support group Hypoplastic Right Hearts.
Amy Basken is into everything – right now, she’s on the Advocacy Staff of both the Adult Congenital Heart Association and the Children’s Heart Foundation; serving as the National Advocacy Coordinator for Mended Little Hearts; and serves as Chairperson of the National Congenital Heart Coalition. She does all this “because I am a mom of a kid with a heart defect.”
A former teacher, Amy Verstappen‘s health deteriorated after the birth of her daughter. Unfortunately she had some doctors we were not familiar with Congenital Heart Defects in Adults and they almost sent Amy for a heart transplant! Thankfully Amy found Cardiologist Dr. Carol Warnes. Dr. Warnes saw the X-ray, knew what she was looking at, and got Amy what she really needed – a valve replacement. After the surgery this same Cardiologist challenged Amy to do something about the adults with CHD who were not getting good care. Her journey has taken Amy out of the classroom to serve as President of the Adult Congenital Heart Association.
And not to be forgotten is the late Jim Wong, a PhD who lived and worked on the West Coast. Jim’s training was in Chemistry, but when it came to learning about heart defects he just wanted to know as much as possible… and he never hesitated to share what he had learned. He often traveled to Washington to serve on a patient advisory committee for the National Institutes of Health, and was at every ACHA event I attended until he was too ill to attend.
Fifty-four years old, Jim was one of the older CHD survivors, and grew up in the days when CHDers were X-rayed, scanned, and fluoroscoped as much as possible. A lot of older survivors pass away after a bout with cancer, not because of their heart. There is currently no medical evidence to prove this, but one theory contends that absorbing all that radiation while they were young leaves older Heart Warriors more susceptible to cancer.
Jim Wong died of cancer earlier this year, perhaps as a result of all those x-rays. I like to think he died the way he lived – helping others learn about defective hearts.