For those in attendance, this year’s theme of “Let’s Have a Ball!” was well-received from local supporters dedicated to fighting and saving lives of people with heart disease — the No. 1 cause of death in America.
The guests, adorned in festive black and red attire, filled the expanse of the oceanfront Coral Casino as the sun was setting over the horizon during the cocktail reception. The mood was joyous and inspirational, fulfilling the purpose of the evening — in part, to raise funds essential for supporting AHA’s groundbreaking research, advocacy efforts and educational programs.
According to Dr. Michael Shenoda, AHA Central Coast Division board chair, the AHA has been spearheading groundbreaking research locally and nationwide into heart disease and therapies such as Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement in which the damaged heart valve is removed and replaced with an artificial valve without open heart surgery, and the Percutaneous Mitral Valve Repair called the Mitra Clip, which is the world’s first Transcatheter Mitral Valve repair device — another less invasive procedure used to repair an abnormal heart valve without the risk of open heart surgery.
“We are working toward improving the cardiovascular health of all Americans by 20 percent, and reducing deaths from cardiovascular diseases and stroke by 20 percent, all by the year 2020,” Shenoda said.
Shenoda also noted that advancements in technology and science combined further support the vital research to advance the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of congenital heart disease.
“For instance, the story of this year’s Passion Speaker, Tristen, who was born with only half a heart, also known as Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome,” Shenoda said. “In the past, this was an unfortunate terminal congenital heart disease, but we see Tristen at age 10 as a vibrant young boy who has a long life to look forward to because of the research endeavors of the AHA.”
As the sun set, guests adjourned to the ballroom and settled down to enjoy a health-conscious, three-course dinner, complete with guest speakers and a live auction.
The ballroom walls were lavished with gold curtains enhanced with red lighting, and tables adorned with candles gave the room a relaxed and romantic atmosphere.
Denise Sanford, chair of the Heart Ball, expressed to the crowd her deep gratitude to sponsors, donors, volunteers, doctors and members of the leadership committee for their continued commitment to the Central Coast Division of the AHA.
“The success of this event would not be possible without you and your support,” Sanford said.
Renee Grub, Central Coast Division board chair, emphasized that along with funding groundbreaking pediatric research through the Heart Ball, the organization strives to educate local youths about the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle through the continuous support of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians Foundation and the “How to Keep Your Heart Happy” art contest.
The art contest is open to local students ages 5 to 12 who are encouraged to draw a poster illustrating their answer to “How to Keep Your Heart Happy.”
“The purpose of the contest is to show our children how to take personal responsibility in caring for their hearts,” Grubb said.
Virginia Ortega of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians Foundation joined Grubb onstage to present certificates of achievement to the winners. Runner-up Lilianna Agredano, 10, a fourth-grader at Peabody Charter School, and first-place winners Ashley Posch and Valentina Juricek of Washington Elementary School were all smiles as the room filled with applause.
Posch and Juricek are good friends, and both are enrolled in the GATE Program, an academic program designed for gifted students who exceed grade-level expectations at Washington Elementary. The girls decided the contest would be fun and creative to do as a team while coming up with ideas to best portray what they thought was important to maintain a healthy heart.
“I really enjoyed making the picture because it reminded me how important my heart is and what is important to maintain a healthy heart,” Juricek said. “I also really appreciate the resources and education that the American Heart Association has to help people live healthy lives and learn what they can do after a heart attack, heart surgery or stroke.”
Every child who participated in the contest received a Healthy Kids Cookbook and a “Heart Health at Home” kit that teaches the importance of nutrition, exercise and making healthy lifestyle choices.
“I really appreciate all that the American Heart Association has done for all of the people in need,” Posch said. “I hope our picture will help spread awareness of what it takes to have a healthy heart.”
The live auction hosted by leadership chair Sarah Jaimes beckoned an eager response from attendees, raising more than $80,000 to fight cardiovascular disease and stroke.
The evening's Passion Speaker, Tristen, stood confidently beside his mother, Lindy Ashmore, who shared a tender and courageous story about her son, who was diagnosed with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome (HLHS) when she was 21 weeks pregnant. The mother and son served as an example of inspiration, hope and perseverance to all of those in attendance.
Ashmore explained that it all started when she went in for a typical ultrasound to determine the sex of her baby. She was informed she was carrying a baby boy, but that there were some “abnormalities” and she would have to see a specialist.
She was given three options: to terminate the pregnancy, to give birth to the child and the doctors would do their best to make him “comfortable” so she could hold him and say goodbye, or to undergo an experimental three-stage process of open heart surgeries. Ashmore said she was told that if Tristen survived, he most likely would have no real quality of life.
“Well, I didn’t like any of those options! God gave me this baby, and I was going to do my best to make sure that I did everything I could do to save him,” she said. “So with a lot of prayer and some fast research, I found a surgeon in Boston who was doing experimental fetal surgeries for babies with this diagnosis.”
At 22 weeks pregnant, she met a specialist, Dr. Wayne Tworetsky, who performed the surgery.
“He was able to go in to my womb and place a tiny balloon in Tristen’s aortic valve,” Ashmore said. “They were hoping that would cause the left ventricle to actually open and grow, giving Tristen a healthy heart. Mind you, his heart was the size of your fingernail when this was done.”
Unfortunately, the procedure did not reverse the diagnosis, but Ashmore was referred to Dr. Frank Hanley, a pioneer for HLHS. After enduring 36 hours of labor, Tristen was born, and at just 1 day old underwent open heart surgery.
“The surgery was a complete success!” Ashmore said. “What was crazy is that because of all the pressure and swelling in his chest, they couldn’t close him up after surgery. So, I’ve seen my son’s heart beating in his chest. It was amazing.”
Two months later, Tristen had his second open heart surgery, which again was a success.
Tristen’s recovery was a long process that included a four-hour drive to Stanford every week for check-ups and countless procedures, including one on his vocal cords because the breathing tube had paralyzed one of them.
Regardless of the setbacks, Tristen underwent his final and successful open heart surgery a couple of days before his first birthday. He’s a healthy young boy now, down to annual checkups, and takes just one medication and one baby aspirin each night.
“I thank God every single day for the miracle that he gave me in Tristen. For the research, the doctors, the NICU nurses and the surgeons he put in our path,” Ashmore shared. “Tristen is so brave — he’s fun and funny, strong, caring, smart, and I couldn’t be more proud of him.”
Tristen told Noozhawk that he doesn’t remember undergoing any of the past surgeries and never feels different from other kids at school.
“My parents always treat me like everyone else because I am no different from any of the other kids,” he said.
When asked if he had anything else he would like to share with Noozhawk readers, he boldly proclaimed, “I love my parents and my sister, and that’s it!”
He then smiled, before leaping from the outdoor lounge sofa facing the ocean and dashing back to the ballroom to join his family.
Click here for more information about the Central Coast American Heart Association, or call 805.963.8862.
— Noozhawk iSociety columnist Melissa Walker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkSociety, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.