By Adria Giordano, Gabriella’s Mom
As Valentine’s Day quickly approaches, our home becomes a sea of red hearts… from cookies and decorations, to candy and card making, I tend to go a bit overboard during this time of the year. Hearts are kind of a big deal in our family. A very big deal. And not just on February 14th, but throughout the year. During this month of chocolate, roses and secret admirers, our family celebrates, along with thousands of other families, American Heart Month.
February is American Heart Month and the week of February 7-14th is Congenital Heart Defect (CHD) Awareness Week. This annual awareness effort is designed to help educate the public about congenital heart defects, the number one birth defect in the U.S. Approximately 40,000 babies are born each year with a CHD, or 1 in every 125 births. Our baby girl was one of them.
Gabriella was born 14 years ago with a CHD known as Atrial Septal Defect (ASD), in which the wall that separates the upper heart chambers does not close completely—thus, leaving a hole in the wall. As typical with an ASD, there were no symptoms, and we were shocked when during a routine medical checkup for a cough, a heart murmur was detected. When Gabriella was 4 ½ years old, she underwent open heart surgery at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center to repair this hole and save her heart.
It was the most difficult day of our lives, as we handed our little girl over to a team of physicians to save her life. As a mother, I don’t think there is ever any way to prepare for this or to hear someone tell you they need to stop your child’s heart in order to repair it. I remember asking so many questions, not fully comprehending what I was hearing. I remember the days and nights leading up to the surgery as being anxious, scared, and unsure of what would happen.
Felice Heller, MD, Gabriella’s cardiologist, took such great care to make sure we knew every single thing that would be happening, and Dennis Mello, MD, her surgeon, answered all of our questions, no matter how many times I repeated myself. They never rushed us, or made us feel like we were asking too many questions. Paula Abrahamson, one of the amazing child life specialists at Connecticut Children’s, gave our family, including Gabriella’s little sister, a tour of the surgery center, so she would be familiar with the room, as well as stayed in touch with us throughout the procedure.
January 8, 2008, will forever be the day our daughter’s heart was stopped, so it could be fixed. I remember sitting in the family surgery lounge, holding my breath, afraid to breathe or talk, for fear I would crumble to the floor. Finally, after several hours, the doors opened and in walked Dr. Mello, telling us the good news. The surgery was a success. A week later my girl was running down the 8th floor hallway and cleared to come home.
We are forever grateful to the Division of Cardiology at Connecticut Children’s for saving her life, and for the amazing care and compassion they showed our entire family. It was one of the most difficult and scariest experiences my husband and I have gone through as parents.
The year following her surgery our family held a fundraiser, Gabriella’s Scoop Night, to support the Division of Cardiology at Connecticut Children’s. We wanted to give back to the wonderful hospital which saved her heart. To date, the event has raised $50,000 through generous donations of family, friends and sponsors in the community.
Today, Gabriella’s heart is stronger than ever and completely healed. She has gone through other medical issues, including six eye surgeries for cataracts and glaucoma, however she does not let this prevent her from being her best self. And although she would deny it, Gabriella is a warrior. She doesn’t focus on the past, or allow it to prevent her from doing what she loves. She swims on her high school swim team and dances weekly. She is compassionate and kind, loves children, and thinks about being a teacher or social worker one day.
Gabriella continues to be my inspiration every day, with her determination and compassion to help other children going through heart issues. When she was 10 she created “GG’s Hearts,” a nonprofit which provides special teddy bears to children having heart surgery. To date, more than 250 bears have been donated to hospitals across New England, including many at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.
We thank God every single day for the amazing physicians, nurses, child life specialists and everyone who works to help improve children’s lives. They are our angels. How truly blessed we are to have such a special place in our own backyard.