A high school student and survivor of Congenital Heart Disease (CHD), Anna O’Donnell has been involved with the American Heart Association for most of her life. Anna’s heart defect was detected before she was born, during a routine ultrasound, when it was determined that Anna’s aorta was on the wrong side of her heart, her pulmonary artery was narrowed, and her heart only had three chambers, instead of four. Before the age of 5, Anna underwent 3 open heart surgeries.
Today, as a thriving teenager, Anna knits hats for the AHA’s Little Hats, Big Hearts program and is a vocal participant at most of the AHA’s signature events in the New England area. She was the featured keynote speaker at the 2013 Boston Go Red for Women Luncheon, 2013 Boston Heart Ball and 2014 N.H. Heart Ball and has participated in countless other AHA events.
Anna kindly took the time to do some Q&A about CHD, from what it’s like living with it, to how others can live heart-healthy.
A lot of young people don't start thinking about heart disease until they or a loved one have been affected. How did you first get involved with the American Heart Association?
Anna: My parents actually started to volunteer with the AHA when I was a baby because they found a support group for parents of kids with CHDs who walked in the AHA’s Heart Walk. My parents began a walk team for me and invited friends and family to walk with them each year.
I first got involved with the AHA on my own when an AHA staff member contacted me and my family about participating in a “thank you” video for my cardiologist, who was receiving a very prestigious cardiology award. I was currently recovering from other medical problems when I participated. I think I instantly won over the hearts of everyone in the room and my professional volunteering career with the AHA was "launched." From then on, I was contacted for other AHA events that needed a speaker or face for CHD.
What do you wish more people knew about the American Heart Association?
Anna: I wish more people knew how much the AHA does for kids and people in general that no one really realizes. For example, the healthier lunches in schools and the growing number of AED's in work buildings and businesses.
And what do you wish more people knew about heart disease?
Anna: I wish more people knew that heart disease is the number one killer of women. Cardiovascular disease kills one in three women. And congenital heart disease affects one in 100 babies. CHD takes more lives every year than ALL forms of childhood cancer COMBINED! Yet cancer gets five times the amount of research…
How does your heart condition affect your day to day life? Does it affect most of your choices?
Anna: My diagnosis sounds scary, but with the help of the research the AHA funds, I'm really a typical teenager. I have to take a lot of medications every day, and some of them have some side effects. But nothing too drastic. I can't really run fast or for a long time without getting light-headed and having trouble breathing. But that's okay, I don't like to run! I can't do most sports, like some of the games in gym class, but I can participate in gym class!
I never let it hold me back from doing the things I want to do. If I want to do something and I am told I can't, I find a way to make it so I CAN do it. I have fought too hard to let my condition control my life. Some of my choices are affected by my condition, but not many. For example, on field trips I have to know where the AED machine is and I ALWAYS tell an adult about my situation. When I went to an amusement park with my school, my dad had to come with me in case anything happened. I also had to evaluate whether or not the ride was safe for me to go on. The group of friends I was with is so good about it! If I couldn't go on the ride, they would "have the fun for me"!
Do you spend time with others who have a similar ailment to you?
Anna: I have not really found anyone near me who is my age that also has a congenital heart defect. But I am on several groups on Facebook.
Since working with the AHA, has there been a personal highlight or key accomplishment for you?
Anna: Since working with the AHA, I have done so many events. But I would have to say that my first [AHA] Heart Ball speech was my favorite. I had so much fun and it was an AMAZING experience! The AHA has also called me to walk the runway in 3 fashion shows. I figure if someone in the audience sees me doing well, they will know how important the work of the AHA is.
Is there a website or outlet that you think could help educate more young people about heart disease? Or a particular thing that you'd recommend others to read?
Anna: I would say that heart.org is the best resource. It has so much information about cardiovascular diseases and prevention methods.
If someone were considering getting involved with the AHA as a volunteer, what do you think would be a good way for them to start?
Anna: I think a good way to begin volunteering might be taking part in a Heart Walk with the AHA and having a team and raising money.
When you're not busy with working or your AHA responsibilities, how do you like to spend your free time?
Anna: In my free time I like to volunteer with therapy dogs. When I was 10, I trained my dog, Bella, and we got certified as a therapy dog team. I was one of the youngest people to be certified as a therapy dog handler. Bella and I often go to a local nursing home.
I also started a program at my local library called "tail wagging tutors.” It is a program where kids come in and read and sit with the dog. It helps the kids' reading skills because it is a correction-free zone, so they can just read and get comfortable reading out loud.
By Darren Paltrowitz