One of the most powerful moments at the Congenital Heart Legislative Conference can come not when shaking hands with one of our nation’s leaders, but when you have the chance to connect with someone just like you, just like your child, an everyday CHD survivor. Ken Woodhouse, and adult CHD patient with tetralogy of fallot, Melanie Toth, and her son Luke, a young patient with tetralogy of fallot, share their thoughts on just such an experience in this Q&A.
PCHA: Tell us a little about yourself. How has CHD impacted your life?
Melanie: I was born and raised in Chicago. I married my best friend Ben at age 23. After Ben was involved in a bad motorcycle accident we realized, tomorrow isn’t promised and wanted to start a family right away. At our 20 week ultrasound we heard the words that change the world for so many families, there is something wrong with your baby’s heart. Before CHD, I never thought about volunteering and how you can help others on almost a daily basis. CHD has opened my eyes, my heart, and changed me for the better. I remind myself of that on days when CHD can really suck!
Ken: I was born in 1981 with tetralogy of Fallot and had my first open heart surgery at eight months old. Like many young adults (especially those, like me, who were asymptomatic), I thought I was “fixed” and fell out of cardiology care in late high school / early college. Between that time and 2011 (at the age of 30), when I literally fell back into care after a bicycling accident, I never really thought of myself as a heart
patient. But since that accident, I have gotten very involved with the CHD community as a volunteer and
advocate. In 2014, I had my second open heart surgery to replace my original pulmonary valve, which
had been leaking since birth.
Having a CHD has forced/reminded me to make my health a priority and to focus on the many positive
aspects of my life. (It can be a challenge to do so from time to time, especially when one lives with a
chronic health condition.) At the same time, being a part of the CHD community has introduced me to
some of the strongest, bravest, and most amazing people I know – many of whom have become dear
friends; and I am forever grateful for those connections.
PCHA: What brought you to D.C.? What inspired you to speak to Legislators on Capitol Hill and what were you hoping to accomplish?
Melanie: After Luke was born, I began questioning so many things about why this happened. I didn’t want to dwell on the negative. I found that helping other heart families with support really helped me. After many years of offering support to heart families, I wanted to do more and Legislative Conference was always on my “bucket list” to attend. Many friends both heart parents and patients attended this conference and felt so empowered after coming home. I wanted to feel that way too. I was hoping that sharing our heart journey would help heart warriors just like Luke now and in the future.
Ken: I first went to DC for CHD lobby/advocacy day in 2012, and I’ve gone almost every year since; 2014 was the only exception, as the event was shortly after my second surgery. I don’t recall a specific impetus for my initial visit; I think it just felt like the next/best way for me to get more involved in the cause.
PCHA: Melanie, tell us how you all met. As a mom, what was it like to get to meet Ken and hear his story?
Melanie: We all met by having our first Hill visits scheduled together. I had briefly met Ken before but never really had to opportunity to talk. In walking together to our first visit, we began to talk about the day ahead. In our first meeting, hearing Ken speak directly after Luke and I, starting with, “I’m the adult version of Luke,” it made me realize that one day, that could be Luke. One day that could be Luke speaking from his perspective how CHD has impacted his life. I hope Luke will grow up to be driven, smart, motivated, and a CHD Advocate like Ken.
I always feel some connection to heart families but Ken’s positive and energetic personality was an inspiration. I have met many adults with CHD over the past decade but there was something different about meeting Ken. Just a different feeling like Ken and Luke should have met that day. Luke is pretty shy and when we came home his teacher asked him to do a PowerPoint about our trip. Luke put it together (with little help from me) and was so excited to share with his friends and teacher that he made a difference in D.C. Not being afraid to tell his story came from his interact with Ken.
PCHA: Ken, what was it like for you to meet and hang out with Luke? Did it remind you of your own childhood experience?
Ken: I met Luke and his mom Melanie on our walk from the conference hotel to our first Capitol Hill visits of the day. As it happened that morning, I think it’s common for heart patients and families to connect
over shared experiences, especially in a setting like the legislative conference.
I always enjoy meeting fellow CHD patients, and I think there’s an extra connection when you share the
same defect—tetralogy of Fallot, in our case. With respect to advocacy, my childhood was nothing like
Luke’s. Advocacy and lifelong care were nowhere on my radar at his age. I was asymptomatic as a child
so I never really gave my heart a second thought. When I was younger, my scar felt more like a
birthmark than anything because I didn’t remember that initial surgery as a baby. As an adult – and
knowing what I know now – it’s exciting and encouraging to see young CHD warriors getting involved to
the degree that Luke is.
PCHA: Luke, how’d you like meeting Ken? Was it cool to meet an adult like you?
Luke: I really liked meeting Ken. He was really funny and laughed at all of my jokes. I met a few kids with special hearts at D.C., but none with the same defect like me. Ken is a SUPER cool tetralogy of fallot warrior, like me.
PCHA: So how did your DC visit go? Were the legislators receptive to you message?
Melanie: Hill visits this year went great! In Illinois we are fortunate to have so many that attend from our state. We were partnered with heart parents, heart patients (all ages), medical staff, siblings, and bereaved families. It really showed that CHD is lifelong, never cured, with different outcomes. Our last visit with Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi was a 100% yes as a Co-Sponsor as he is a fellow heart dad. It was a great why to end the day with a yes!
Ken: While we got to meet Senator Durbin and Representative Bilirakis during the conference, our actual Hill visits (mine, at least) were solely with legislative staffers. In general, everyone I met with was receptive
to our message, to our stories, and to our requests (generally speaking). But the real work, I believe, is in
building the ongoing relationships to continually push for our issues. Nothing happens quickly in DC, and
in order for our advocacy work to truly be successful, we must stay in touch with our elected leaders in
Congress so that our issues remain front and center for them.
PCHA: What did your trip – and your new found friendships – teach you?
Ken: 2018 marked the sixth year that I attended the legislative conference, and I initially wasn’t sure I would learn anything this time around. The format stays pretty consistent each year, and I approached it
primarily as continuing the long but necessary journey toward increased awareness and funding for the
Rather than teaching me something, I think this year’s trip just reminded me that sometimes you can
have an unexpected impact on others when you’re not even trying to and when you least expect it. I
initially got involved in CHD advocacy for myself because of my own personal interests. I never intended
to be inspiring to—or a role model for—others. But meeting people like Luke and Melanie reminded me
that being an adult thriving with CHD can offer hope and encouragement for the younger generation
and their families.
Melanie: Although this was my third conference, it was my the first time my inspiration – Luke – was by my side. This trip taught me that no matter how long you’ve been in the CHD community, everyone has a powerful story and can inspire you when you least expect it!
PCHA: What are your hopes for the future of the CHD community?
Ken: There are a lot of strong and passionate voices within the CHD community – and for good reason. I think that continued partnership and collaboration among all members and organizations will only make our voices stronger. At the broadest level, I think the country is facing a serious public health issue with
respect to CHD. Thanks to medical advances, people with CHD are living longer than they have in the
past; and we’re at a point where there are now more adults than children living with CHD. Yet there is a
severe shortage of certified congenital cardiologists to care for the growing and aging population. And at
the same time, we’re not – in a significant enough way – on the radars of Congress, the broader medical
community, major philanthropy, or the general public.
My hope for the CHD community is that we are able to make a real impact to significantly increase
awareness, funding, and –as a result – better longer term outcomes for our CHD warriors. When we talk
about advocacy, we frequently refer only to our work with our elected officials at the federal and state
levels. And no doubt that work is crucial! But I think CHD advocacy is much larger than that. I think
increasing awareness in all areas of our lives is just as important – whether that’s with our primary care
doctors, our families, our friends, our partners and spouses, and anyone else who will listen.
Melanie: Luke got to see what we can do as a heart community together, one voice, we can accomplish so much. My hope is for Luke to continue to use his voice in the CHD community, not just for himself, but all heart warriors from the past, present, and future.
Ken Woodhouse was born in 1981 with a congenital heart defect (CHD) known as tetralogy of Fallot. He had his first open heart surgery at the age of eight months; and like many individuals with CHD, he originally thought he was “fixed” after that surgery. Ken never really considered myself a heart patient when he was younger, and fell out of cardiology care for over a decade between his mid-teens and late 20s. A bicycling accident in August 2011 resulted in a concussion and a trip to the emergency room. While Ken was not seriously injured, a series of follow-up tests revealed that he had an aneurysm in his pulmonary artery; and the reality quickly set in that his CHD was not fixed. In fact, Ken would need additional intervention in the not-too-distant future and specialized care for the rest of his life.
Shortly after that accident, Ken became active in the congenital heart defect/disease community. As an advocate and speaker, he has had the opportunity to share his own story and to help raise awareness on Capitol Hill and at events across the country. Ken is currently a Senior Ambassador and a blogger with the Adult Congenital Heart Association; and his volunteer work in the CHD community has also given him the chance to collaborate with The Children’s Heart Foundation and the Pediatric Congenital Heart Association. Ken feels he is extremely fortunate to have been able to live a healthy and active life. He has always loved the outdoors, cycling in particular.
Melanie’s heart journey began in June 2008, during a routine 20 week ultrasound. She and husband were devastated by the news that their unborn son Luke would be born with a congenital heart defect (Tetralogy of Fallot) and required heart surgery at a week old and again at 9 months old. Feeling very scared and alone during the roller coaster ride of a CHD journey, Melanie decided that no other heart family should feel alone. In 2010, she has started a support group for heart families in Chicago. Working nationally and locally with various CHD organizations. In 2016, she began volunteering with PCHA’s new state chapters, to offer families more than just support. She is currently the State Chapter Coordinator for PCHA National helping to develop state chapters.