by Jehan Seals with McKenzie Moffett
While February is the shortest month of the year, the week of Feb. 6-13 requires much from those who are working to spread awareness about congenital heart defects. Congenital heart defects are the most common type of birth defect, and according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, CHD affects 8 out of every 1,000 babies born in the U.S. each year. Locally, the Louisiana Pediatric Cardiology Foundation is working diligently to spread awareness of CHDs in order to reduce the number of fatalities from sudden cardiac death.
A CHD can be described simply as any abnormality of the heart, ranging from a simple defect that will never produce symptoms, to a complex defect that causes life-threatening symptoms and requires immediate medical attention. According to LPCF, nearly twice as many children die from CHD than from all forms of childhood cancer combined. Lori Smith has a great deal of personal experience with CHDs, which lead her to her current role as Director of Operations for LPCF.
In July of 2006, Lori and her husband Greg were at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center awaiting the arrival of their daughter Hannah Lynn. Born at 5 pounds 14 ounces, she was perfect in the eyes of her new parents. “My pregnancy was textbook perfect. Hannah was tiny but pink and perfect,” Lori said.
The Smiths took their newborn baby girl home unaware of any issue. “Hannah had no signs of illness. It wasn’t until she stopped eating that we became concerned and brought her to see her doctor,” Lori said. Five month old Hannah was admitted to the hospital on Dec., 12, and soon after, they discovered that she was suffering from severe cardiomyopathy, a condition that causes weakening of the heart making it difficult for the heart to pump and deliver blood to the rest of the body.
The Smiths soon began to battle the realities of heart surgery for Hannah. They sought God carefully in this time and received an answer revealing his plan unexpectedly on a postal worker’s calendar. “While standing in line at the post office for a certified letter, I saw Ezekiel 36:26, ‘I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you,’” Lori explained. The words of God were confirmed shortly afterwards in a letter stating that Hannah would no longer need a heart transplant.
“God used Hannah’s situation to gently guide me into His will—to help other heart families,” Lori said. Lori volunteered with LPCF from 2007-2013, and in 2013, she was asked to join the LPCF board. In September 2013, Lori went to work for LPCF fulltime. “I had finally been offered my dream job,” she said. Lori’s main duties include development, fundraising, coordinating family grants, facilitating the heart moms’ support group, and more.
“I started our heart moms’ support group in January 2014, and we’ve grown to over 200 moms in our private online group,” Lori added. The community-wide impact does not end there for LPCF—they host many fundraisers and awareness events each year and work with local high schools to coordinate free heart screenings for athletes.
“Our board is hosting its annual fundraiser which takes place every spring at the Country Club of Louisiana in Baton Rouge,” Lori said. This four-day tennis tournament will run March 17-20, 2016 and corporate sponsorships and proceeds from the tournament, gala and auction will directly support grants for families. The inaugural LPCF Heart Hero Hustle will take place at the Lamar Dixon Expo Center in Gonzalez, La., on April 2. This will be the state’s first-ever Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Walk and will include a 5k with 1-mile fun run. More details are available at: https://runsignup.com/Race/LA/Gonzales/HeartHeroHustle
“Our mission is to save lives,” Lori said. In 2012, LPCF established the Save A Heart program, which targets area high school athletes in hopes of reducing the number of sudden cardiac deaths. Cases of sudden cardiac death in young athletes have increasingly made headlines in the media both nationally and locally, including Wally Pontiff Jr., a former LSU baseball player, who died in 2002 from complications due to an undiagnosed CHD. According to LPCF’s website, each year about 3,000 athletes age 18 and younger die from an undiagnosed heart condition, and in 2011 22 athletes ages 12-18 died right here in Louisiana.
The urgency of bringing awareness to the public about CHDs cannot be understated, and LPCF has done its part through the use of mobile screening units on local campuses, as well as offering teams and individual athletes the ability to schedule heart screenings at the local pediatric cardiology clinic.
Lori said that LPCF has truly changed her direction in life. “I enjoyed teaching elementary school, [but] I thank God, for his plan is best,” she said. Lori and her husband have since welcomed their second daughter, Hallie, into the world and have claimed Hannah’s healing in Christ. She explained her gratitude for God’s miracles in Hannah’s life saying, “After Hannah had been taken off the transplant list, I asked her doctor what were the odds [of that happening]. Without hesitation he said, ‘zero percent,’ my daughter is as her name states, God’s grace.”