Monday, June 25 , 2018, 1:30 pm | Mostly Cloudy 68º

 
 
 
 

Gala Gets to the ‘Heart of the Matter’ to Support AHA’s Local Groundbreaking Research, Education

The Beckstead family's story of struggle and inspiration adds a personal touch to the American Heart Association fundraiser

More than 200 guests opened their minds and hearts during the 14th Annual Heart of the Matter ball benefiting the American Heart Association Central Coast Division in support of local groundbreaking research and lifesaving education to find a cure for cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in America.

Guests gathered on the outdoor patio of the Four Seasons The Biltmore Santa Barbara’s Coral Casino admiring a shimmering sunset flowing over the Pacific Ocean as courteous wait staff carefully made their way through the throngs of people sipping cool beverages and nibbling on tasty appetizers while enjoying live music from Palmer Jackson Jr. and John Simpson.

The title sponsor for the evening was the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, and a mix of silent auction items from in-kind donors covered long tables that extended the length of the seaside patio, including a Chumash Casino getaway, an autographed Back to the Future movie poster and original script, a Surf’s Up Package with surfboard and Laird Hamilton autographed photos, and much more.

At the folds of dusk, partygoers made their way to the La Pacific Ballroom for welcome speeches by AHA staff members and special guest speakers that was followed by a brief informational film and dinner.

As guests enjoyed a delicious entrée of pistachio crusted mahi mahi with oven dried tomato and avocado salad, Board President Joseph Aragon graciously welcomed guests, staff and supporters.

“Your presence here tonight signals a firm commitment to a treatment and cure for cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of death in America and the No. 1 killer in Santa Barbara,” he said. “By being here tonight and by giving your hearts, you are advancing the AHA’s goal of improving the cardiovascular health of Americans by 20 percent and reducing deaths from cardiovascular disease and stroke by 20 percent by the year 2020.”

Aragon also stressed how ongoing support is helping to facilitate and contribute to overall educational efforts promoting heart health via exercise, nutrition, prevention and awareness.

“These programs have a clear and positive impact on our local communities,” said Aragon, who is also the director of the Sansum Clinic’s Cardiology Division.

Next, AHA Executive Director Lisa Dosch exemplified the incredible progression of research, education and outreach programs that are provided to raise community awareness.

“AHA is in our children’s schools with programs battling childhood obesity and poor nutritional choices; in our hospitals assuring quality of care through our Get With The Guidelines program; and in churches and community organizations with our lifesaving outreach and educational programs,” she said. “And, locally, these efforts include CPR/AED training and education to over 7,000 community members through our CPR Anytime program.”

Other programs include the Go Red for Women campaign, educating hundreds of local women about the risk of heart disease, and My Heart. My Life. reaches out to local companies and employers to provide the tools necessary to create a culture of physical activity through healthy living initiatives.

Dosch also noted that last year the organization funded more than $14 million in grants to researchers in California, including Dr. Carol Vandenberg at UCSB, who received a research grant to determine how specific genetic mutations may contribute to heart disease.

Guest speaker Dr. Thomas Weimbs, an associate professor at UCSB in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, received a grant last year from AHA to fund much-needed research investigating molecular mechanisms underlying polycystic kidney (PKD).

During his speech, Weimbs explained that PKD may cause abnormalities of the heart valves and the dangerous effects of elevated blood pressure, a common complication of PKD, when left untreated in patients can further damage the kidneys and increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.

According to Weimbs, AHA fellowship research grants are needed for training the scientists and pre-med students at the postdoctoral, graduate and undergraduate level in the UCSB Weimbs Laboratory.

“Students train with other professors in researching the molecular causes of the disease and identify new drug treatments for the disease so that the potential drug can be tested and ultimately can lead to clinical trials,” he said.

Dosch shared the impact of AHA supporters and the need for additional funds to assist Weimbs and the student researchers.

“Dr. Weimbs is currently seeking a grant-in-aid and an innovative science award from the AHA,” she said. “The more funds we raise between now and June 30, the more research we can fund beginning July 1.”

Dosch then introduced passion speaker Melissa Beckstead, who shared an inspiring and heart-wrenching story about her daughter, Ella May.

Beckstead tearfully explained that she was just 20 weeks pregnant when doctors diagnosed that the baby would be born with literally half a heart, a severe congenital heart defect known as Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome (HLHS), which required the infant to undergo open heart surgery at just 2 days old.

“Thirty years ago, that was considered a certain death sentence because there was no known medical procedure short of an infant heart transplant in which many children didn’t survive even when they were lucky enough to get one,” she said.

But Beckstead said that she and her husband, Brady, were given hope by a pediatric cardiologist at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles when they were told about the three-stage surgery know as the Norwood Procedure for HLSH that would give Ella a fighting chance to survive.

“We worried about our baby even being a candidate for the surgery,” Beckstead said. “Would she be strong enough to make it through? Would we ever hold her and bring her home? And if she did make it out of the hospital alive, would she be able to eat by herself, breathe on her own and leave our house without getting sick? Would we ever be able to celebrate her birthday?”

Beckstead said the hardest thing she ever had to do was hand Ella over to surgeons, knowing that it could be the last time she might see her alive.

“The doctors tried to prepare us for what she would look like post-op so we would not be alarmed,” she said. “But honestly there was little to prepare you to see your 2-day-old daughter with her chest still open from surgery and her tiny body swollen from excess fluids and connected to more monitors than we ever thought possible.”

Fifty days after Ella was born, her parents got to take her home, and Ella’s in-house recovery and rehabilitation required that she take nine medications per day, use a pulse ox machine three times a day to monitor the infant’s breathing and other ongoing physical therapy.

“Ella had her second open heart surgery at 4 months old, which was a remarkable recovery compared to the first procedure, and she will have her third open heart surgery anywhere from between 2 and 4 years old,” Beckstead said. “Hopefully that is her third and final surgery, but it is not certain as she has a questionable life expectancy.”

The impact of AHA is felt in the warmth and emotion that the Beckstead family enjoys in the time that they have to spend together.

“Because of research made possible by AHA, Ella today is a beautiful, vibrant 7-month-old baby weighing an impressive 17 pounds,” Beckstead said. “She laughs, touches and scratches our faces, but most importantly she has stolen our hearts. The reality is that we don’t know how long we will have with Ella, but we will do everything we can to make every day we have together better than the last.”

Noozhawk iSociety columnist Melissa Walker can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkSociety, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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