The Unexpected Defibrillator

Growing up with CHD and constantly facing your own mortality is a very scary reality. For many warriors, anxiety can arise from the myriad of worries. Today we’ll hear from Danielle Sikorski, a heart warrior who shares her personal experience and how she tries to mitigate some of the stresses her daily life. Please note that Danielle is not a mental health professional.

For a long time, I’ve had short episodes of non-sustained ventricular tachycardia. They never caused any problems for me. As a twenty-year-old and thirty-year-old, I spent most of my time as a healthy young adult with CHD. Then suddenly one morning, I had a visit to the ER and the doctors suggested that I get a defibrillator. At just thirty-seven years old, I needed a defibrillator. Who would have thought, definitely not me.

I was born with coarctation of the aorta, a bicuspid aortic valve, VSD, and ASD. I survived four open heart surgeries, bacterial endocarditis, a heart attack, and multiple arrhythmias. Despite going through all of that, I had yearly and six month doctor visits. I take heart medications and go for monthly blood tests as ongoing maintenance of my heart condition and have had no major heart problems since my last open-heart surgery at 15 years old. That was until January of 2016. I can tell you a whole different story about my health at that point since that is when the heart problems returned.

As I got ready to go to work one morning, I stressed myself out. The stress triggered an arrhythmia that caused my heart to speed up very fast. I got scared. I quickly went downstairs and sat on the couch. My brother ended up taking me to the ER when my heart rhythm did not slow down. When I got to the ER, they said my heart rate was at 190 bpm. The ER could not slow my heart down with medication, so they cardioverted me and then sent me off to another hospital to get a defibrillator implanted. Cardioversion is when they shock your heart with an external defibrillator to get it back to normal rhythm.

When I first got my defibrillator implanted, I was in shock.  I was not ready to have a defibrillator. I thought to myself, “I’m not old yet. I still have to accomplish things in my life before my health declines. Why go to such drastic measures to protect my heart?” I know the doctors were just trying to protect me and do what they thought was best for my heart,  but still I reacted in anger. Even after the defibrillator procedure, I thought to myself “Was that all a dream? Did that really happen to me? Do I really need this defibrillator?” I felt almost guilty for having one, like this shouldn’t have happened in the first place. I blamed myself for getting stressed out that morning and thought I could have done something to prevent it. I thought maybe the arrhythmia was just a rare occurrence and would probably never happen again. Of course, now I realize that I was wrong and really did need my defibrillator.

It has been three years since I got my defibrillator implanted and I have had two shocks from my device. After each shock, I became fearful and anxious about what would happen to my heart in the future. Of course, I was scared of the possibility of future shocks. I decided to get an ablation to decrease the chances of getting shocked and having to come back for office visits.  Ablation is a heart procedure where they thread catheters to your heart and burn off the cells that are causing the arrhythmia’s. If you have ever had an ablation before, you know they are not fun. I suffered from extreme anxiety just before the procedure. After the procedure, you have to lie flat on your back for many hours before you can move around or get up from your bed. This is to prevent bleeding at the sites where they inserted the catheters.

After the ablation, I found out that the doctors ablated seven different areas in my heart that were found to cause arrhythmia. Knowing this, I am glad that I had the ablation, in that the more cells they burned off, the less chance I have of being shocked by my defibrillator and a lower chance of needing ablations in the future. During the procedure, they found scar tissue in my heart from a previous heart attack.  That scar tissue is from one of my open-heart surgeries I had when I was a teen.  It was surprising to hear that something that happened years ago can cause more damage years later. As CHD patients we are never permanently fixed and will need to maintain and watch our health.

A few months ago, I had another arrhythmia that sent me to the ER. My heart rate was racing at 165 bpm. It just kept beating like that for hours. I was cardioverted again, this time with my defibrillator and had yet another ablation. This time the doctor targeted the area that was causing this specific arrhythmia. I don’t know what triggered the arrhythmia, but I think it could have been one of three things: stress I was experiencing at work, a bad cough or the cough medicine I was taking at the time of the arrhythmia. One ablation was not enough, and during my follow up appointment with my doctor, I found out that it’s not possible to get rid of all the cells in my heart that can cause arrhythmia. What a bummer. I now knew that this was a problem I would live with for the rest of my life. My case was a more complicated one. I saw a new electrophysiologist for a second opinion.  I wanted to find out if there is anything else they can do to prevent the shocks and ER visits in the future. I wish to be prepared for them should they happen again.

The doctor seemed very optimistic about my condition, but again, they cannot guarantee any outcomes because there are still cells in my heart that can cause arrhythmia. They turned off the pacing of the lower chambers of my heart because I have a good heart rhythm on my own without the pacing. The doctor said that the pacing could even trigger an arrhythmia and that they might be able to get me off the anti-arrhythmic medication if I do well in the future.

Many thoughts go through my mind about my heart condition, about what happened in the past, and about how to proceed in the future. Since I’ve had the shocks, I’ve gotten over feeling bad about the defibrillator. Instead, I feel grateful that it is there to save my life. I was still getting worried and anxious about the future and am struggling with uncertainty. I wonder if any shocks or ER visits will happen again. I wonder if I can pay my medical bills or get financial aid and if I will be able to keep my health insurance. I wonder what will happen when I find a new job. All these worries can be a headache. My life would have to include some changes going forward. I think someone who has been healthy for a long time, like me, could only react with anger and fear. It was a loss of good health. Even if my heart was fine most of the time, on a rare occasion, my heart was not okay and needed that protection in case my heart ever decided to go into a dangerous arrhythmia or cardiac arrest. This was something I had to adjust to mentally and emotionally. When I first got my defibrillator, I was going through the stages of grief. It was a big change and big changes can have an emotional impact on you.

I learned that some things in life are just beyond our control. We need to just let go of those things. Instead we need to focus on the ways we can take action to fix the problems that are within our control. When faced with such a serious health problem, it’s only normal to have feelings of worry, doubt, and depression. I will always have CHD, but that doesn’t mean that I should let it control me and my life. We all want to live happy normal lives like people without a chronic condition. We all want to work, spend time with family, take care of them, enjoy hobbies, and go on vacations. We all must continue to live normal lives while dealing with any medical problems that come our way throughout the years because of our CHDs.

Health issues can add stress to our lives because not only do we have every day responsibilities to take care of, but we also have the responsibilities of our health conditions and medical problems. We have to do something to help us keep everything in balance or else it can overwhelm us and potentially cause new issues, such as the stress I experienced that caused my first arrhythmia.

Creating balance in life truly does help. If we focus for too long on a problem, it’s easy to become depressed and anxious. We cannot avoid the problems all together though. It is important to spend time learning about our conditions so that we can better advocate for ourselves and come up with challenging questions for our doctors. This helps us to be able to share any health concerns we experience. Education and support can help get rid of feelings of anxiety and depression. The more we know about our conditions, the more we discuss them with our doctors. This helps us to reduce anxiety.

I was happy that I met with another electrophysiologist about my arrhythmia issue. It gave me more time to talk and ask questions. I have more peace of mind about everything that happened to that point in time. I also got reassurance that the medical professionals would be there for me if anything were to happen with my heart or my defibrillator in the future.

For me, it was also important to allow time away from the problems. I take care of my own sense of well-being and perspective on life, which is helping me to have less anxiety. I try to do things that bring joy into my life, like focusing on my hobbies or spending time with family and friends. I give myself permission to do these and to feel good about doing them. Seeking support and being part of communities like the Pediatric Congenital Heart Association (PCHA) has helped me to get my mind off my own problems and focus on helping others. Heart support groups like PCHA, along with volunteering for non-profit organizations,  such as my church community, have helped me maintain my work-life-heart balance.

Our conditions, symptoms and the traumas we have been through cause scary and negative emotions and reactions. We could end up with anxiety and depression, grief or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), some of the more common mental health problems people with CHDs face.

We must learn how to deal with these emotions in a healthy way so that we can continue on with our lives on our terms. Finding balance within ourselves and our lives, along with the right attitude, education and support can heal us emotionally and give us strength. Looking back at my diagnosis and all I have been through medically, I am amazed that I am still alive and well.  It is amazing what medical technology can do today. I am grateful that it exists along with all the medical professionals who are working hard to provide good healthcare so that I can still be here today. I remain hopeful to live a full and long life. But without the medical technology and  medical professionals, this would not be possible.

Provided below is a list of activities that I have tried and have found to be helpful when faced with feelings of anxiety and depression.  Most of the time, when I am aware of how I feel and I am proactive about changing how I feel, I start to feel positive and happy again knowing that while my CHD can sometimes bend me, it can never break me.

1. Gratitude Journal – Focus on the positive by writing down three things each day that I did that were positive and then reflect on those three things

  1. Adventure Blog –My high school friend,Cortland Grzy-Mader, gave me the idea to start a blog and write about adventures that I had planned. The adventures can be as simple as reading a good book, cooking a new recipe,or visiting someplace new. Once I was finished with my adventure, I wrote about it in my blog in my free time.
  1. Yoga / Exercise – Yoga strengthens and stretches your muscles and makes them more flexible as you place your body in different positions. Sometimes yoga is done with a focus on breathing. I always feel more relaxed and calm after a yoga workout. Exercise in moderation can be good for your heart and help you to be active but always check with your doctor first to make sure how much exercise is safe and healthy for you.
  1. Prayer / Meditation / Meditation Apps on your phone – Faith and prayer can give you a sense of hope, meaning and purpose for the future. Meditation helps to slow or stop the negative thoughts in your mind and shift your focus to breathing and more positive thoughts. This shift in focus can give you a sense of peace and calm.
  2. Visiting communities and support groups – A great way to meet others that you can relate to is through support groups, heart groups or church. There are a lot of CHD and heart-related groups on Facebook where you can post messages and get to know others with similar heart problems. There are also groups that you can meet in person by volunteering at different social, awareness or fundraising events such as PCHA and the Adult Congenital Heart Association (ACHA).

6.Visit friends and family –When you get outside of yourself and focus on others, your problems don’t seem as scary anymore. My friends and family help me to set aside my issues. They also support me emotionally through all of my difficulties.

  1. Seeking treatment from a therapist or counseling professional. If negative feelings persist and nothing else seems to be helping, a licensed professional may be able to better help you sort out your feelings and find an appropriate treatment plan for you. If you are feeling sad and alone or depressed and anxious, don’t be afraid to reach out. Many workplaces offer employee assistance programs and health insurance may cover certain therapists or mental health services.

Note: I am not a mental health professional and I am only speaking from my own experiences with CHD and mental health.

Danielle Sikorski is from the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. She was born with coarctation of the aorta, a bicuspid aortic valve, VSD, and ASD. She survived four open heart surgeries, bacterial endocarditis, a heart attack, and multiple arrhythmias. She has a mechanical aortic valve and a defibrillator. Danielle will be starting a contract position as an Administrative Operations Specialist. In her free time she likes to volunteer with Toastmasters, PCHA and church, exercise, read good books and spend time with friends and family. 

PCHA: At the Heart with Jess

PCHA was founded by everyday people, joining forces for change.Together, we make a greater impact on the CHD Community. During heart month, we’re highlighting our staff members to share how PCHA has impacted their CHD journey and what they think makes us special. Today, we’re getting personal with Jessica Chenevert, our Marketing Coordinator.



What do you love most about working for PCHA?
I love being a part of something that really makes a difference. I get to be a part of shaping the future landscape of CHD. I get to work with people that I admire and inspire me every day. Because of our shared experiences, our work culture isn’t like a typical 9-5 job. We’re a family.
What do you think makes PCHA different from other CHD organizations?
We are a one stop shop for all things CHD.
PCHA is the only CHD organization that provides invaluable resources, offers support to families throughout the lifespan, and advocates on a national level.

How does your experience with CHD help you relate to the families PCHA serves?
When I had my son Barrett, we didn’t know there was anything wrong with his heart. We felt so blindsided after a normal healthy pregnancy. It felt like I was thrown head first out of an airplane, spinning in a downward spiral, unable to catch my breath, and helpless to do anything but fall. I think that trauma is very real for so many CHD families out there, and the fact that PCHA is made up of families who have been where they are is crucial, in order for us to effectively fight for and support those families. We’ve slept in those hospital chairs, we’ve made those life or death decisions, we’ve struggled to pay the bills, we’ve lost our insurance coverage, we’ve celebrated every little victory, and we’ve been inspired by the families who came before us.
How did you discover and come to work for PCHA?
I found PCHA at my son’s bedside, while he was inpatient in 2014. Shortly there after, I saw they had a legislative conference in Washington D.C., where families are able to share their stories with congress. I initially disregarded it as something interesting but that I couldn’t do. Then, I saw it again, and again, until I said to my husband, “I think I want to do that, I think I can.” So I organized a T-shirt booster for “Team Barrett” shirts and raised enough money to pay my way to the 2015 conference. I got bit hard by the advocacy bug, fell in love with PCHA, and emailed Amy the following week to see what  I could do to be more involved. I volunteered for the next 3 years and eventually officially made it on staff.
How has your involvement in PCHA impacted your perspective on your journey with CHD?

I am constantly learning new things all the time. The opportunity to be involved in national conversations with other parents, patients, providers, and government officials has opened my eyes to what it really means for patients and families to walk this road, and it allows me to better serve them. It’s also opened my eyes to what it means for my family, as we continue down this lifelong path, from the neurodevelopmental consequences my son faces and the tools he needs to be successful in every aspect of his life, to transition into an independent adult responsible for his own care. 
As PCHA’s Marketing Coordinator, you’re on the front lines interacting with families every day. What is your favorite tagline PCHA uses and what makes it so meaningful?

My absolute favorite tagline we use is “Together, we are Conquering CHD!” It speaks volumes to me because you can interpret it however it to applies to you.
I am Conquering CHD every day as a patient or parent of a child with complex medical needs.
My child is Conquering CHD by continuing to grow, learn, and survive.
Our family and friends are Conquering CHD through their endless love and support for us.
Too many of my friends are Conquering CHD by simply waking up every day without the children they lost to this disease and carrying on their legacy and living their life for those children.
The dedicated and passionate CHD providers are Conquering CHD through their love and commitment to their work and CHD families.
PCHA is Conquering CHD through education, support, research, and awareness.
Together, we are Conquering CHD!

If you won $20 million dollars in the lottery, what would you do with the money?
If I won the lottery I would be speechless for the first time in my entire life! Besides the practical stuff like paying off any debts and putting a portion into savings, I would do a couple of fun things! Firstly, I would donate to my favorite charity: PCHA! Second, I would donate to the Heart Clinic and the CVCC unit of Children’s Minnesota, where my son receives care. Then, I would love to take a vacation, travel around the globe with my husband and son, visiting as many places as we can. Nolan and I have both been to Australia (separately), we would love to go back together. I also want to visit Sweden, specifically the town where my great great great grandfather lived before journeying to America in 1885 to found Lutsen, Minnesota.



The Gifts that Life Brings

Hello PCHA! I hope everyone is enjoying the holiday season. In the spirit of giving, here are a few short anecdotes on the most memorable gifts that life has brought us. Happy Holidays!!! 

The best Christmas present I received in recent years was family abandoning our usual Christmas traditions and coming to visit me after I was re-admitted to the hospital. My Mom having brought Christmas dinner to the hospital, gifts from my family, neurosurgeon and nurses alike and still being able to watch Christmas Eve service on TV. I was just grateful to have family and a good medical team.

– Erica Thiel; MPS I Hurler Scheie Syndrome w/aortic valve stenosis and insufficiency and Mitral valve stenosis and insufficiency, 35 years old.

One of the best gifts I have ever received came in a small blue paper bag with handles.  The contents escape me, except for the full bag of chocolate candies. What this gift represented was a reminder that I was not alone. That in one of the most challenging series of events in my entire life – placing my newborn baby first into a helicopter, then into the hands of doctor to perform life saving heart surgery – when all of my being was being poured into my baby, someone was thinking of me.  That is a gift I pay forward every single moment that I can.

– Amy Basken; mom to Nicholas, almost 14 years old, now.

The best Christmas gift my husband and I ever received was our baby twins coming home from the hospital. One has a CHD and the other is heart healthy but because of both the CHD and other complications, odds weren’t great for survival. They were born in mid October. One came home in late November and the other came home a couple of weeks before Christmas and we were finally all home together. The road ahead was/is still long, but it was magical.

– Meredith Rasmussen Atkinson; mom to Mirabel and Sofia Atkinson, 14 years old, now.

The best gift I have ever received was a Newfoundland puppy. I was in the hospital after my fourth open heart surgery, and my parent’s friends, who were breeding Newfoundlands, just had a litter of puppies. They told me that I would get to bring home a puppy when I got out of the hospital. Just knowing that when I got home I would have a brand new puppy, kept my spirits high, and provided a huge distraction from my current situation. I am forever grateful to that family for gifting me such a beautiful dog, and ultimately, a great friend. 

– Lauren Wells; Ebstein’s Anomaly, 24 years old.




November Recap – Grateful Hearts

Throughout the month of November, we took a look at everything we have to be grateful for, through the hard times and the good. And we discovered that we have so much to be grateful for in this crazy thing called life! 

I just want to make a quick note to the PCHA community, next week you won’t find our usual PCHA blog. Keep an eye out for something special this December and be sure to check back. In the mean time, we are posting tons of great material, so be sure to stay up to date! 


A Journey Shared – Joseph Burns

The Gift of Life – Sara Engstrom

Angels in Scrubs

Always Enough – Rebeka Acosta

Angels in Scrubs

In times of hardships, it can often be difficult to maintain gratitude. This week, Heather Speakman shares with PCHA how hardships can often teach us the most about gratitude.

It’s the Eve of Thanksgiving and I can’t help but feel overwhelming gratitude to the team of people that take care of our sweet Madison. I know that there are a few hundred stories and posts of a very similar sentiment but I’ve never been one to let someone else tell my story. So here’s my version

To all of the Doctors, NP’s, and PA’s, I see you.

Image result for gratitudeYou’ve explained procedure after procedure, making sure I understand what’s going to happen. You’ve stopped what you’re doing to comfort me when my daughter’s heart rate dropped to 50, assuring me why it happened and how you’re going to fix it. I’ve gotten update after update and I see the look on your face when you wish it was better news. I see the hope in your eyes that she will get better and that you will get her in my arms no matter what. I see how tired you are but no matter how busy it is you make sure everyone is taken care of, often hopping from room to room with coffee in hand. I see that you’re up all night and you still greet me with a smile and ask how I’m doing. I’ve heard your voice on the phone in the middle of the night asking for consent, I know it can’t be easy to ask for permission in a time like this but thank you for being kind. I’ve heard you say, “Are you coming in soon?” knowing that you have to sit me down and have a really hard conversation about what another blood clot could do to my daughter. You’ve greeted me at the door because you couldn’t wait to tell me the good news that she’s going to come off Ecmo. I’ve high-fived you in rounds because we made it over a huge bump in the road. You’ve made it easy to report back to family what the plan is for the day and what it means so I can remember it easily. You’ve looked me in the eyes and promised that you will tell me when it’s too much because I didn’t want to be that mom who put her baby through unnecessary procedures if the result was going to be the same. You’ve also given me the look that says you’re up for the fight and you’ll do everything in your power to save her.

I’ve had to call your name quickly before you left her room to tell you that I think it’s time, she’s tired. With tears in your eyes, your hand holding mine you slowed your breath and regrettably agreed. My heart wasn’t the only one breaking, yours was too. You’ve come to visit, paying your respects and giving your condolences, telling us that she fought and fought hard. You’ve empowered me, reminding me that this is OUR journey with Madison, no one else’s.Image result for gratitude

To the CICU nurses, I see you.

No matter how many times that pump goes off or the monitor beeps you’re there. You’re always asking me if I’m okay, even if you’re not our nurse that day. You’ve seen our baby post op and assured me that there will be ups and downs in the next 24 hours. You’ve let us in the room even when you weren’t ready because you knew we could handle it. You’ve kicked us out so we can get lunch and promised to call if anything changes. I’ve seen you on your hands and knees checking chest tube drainage, making sure she’s not too sleepy or not too agitated on her pain meds, changing countless dressings on her lines. You’ve been able to get IV’s in places like her head, and feet. You’ve hugged me and told me to go home after a surprise phone call in the middle of the night. Telling me that you’ll take good care of her. I’ve seen you try not to laugh when we’re being goofy and super inappropriate and eventually you break down and participate. I hope you know that we love it when you talk to us and ask questions about our life outside of the hospital. It makes me feel like there WILL be a life outside. I love that you talk out loud when you’re trying to figure out why she doesn’t look right, it gives me comfort to know that you’re not afraid to tell us when something is “off”. Although I must say, you have pretty good poker faces. There have been times where you come to us with a problem but you never come without a plan. I’ve seen the look on your face when you have to come in after the doctor just gave us bad news. Even still, you ask if you can get us anything. I wish you could see the look on your face when I ask for vodka and Xanax, I never said it was for me ;0). You’ve told me to get my kisses and love in before each surgery or procedure. You’ve celebrated victories with me, big and small. I love that you come to say hi, even if you’re busy. You’ve greeted me with a smile and a full report if I missed rounds. I’ve laughed with you until my cheeks hurt.  You let me hold my baby girl after 28 days on the ventilator because you knew I needed it. I’ve seen you work hard in other rooms when it wasn’t an easy day and cover each others lunches sometimes jumping from one room to another.

You’ve talked to us about Madi’s prognosis and helped us ask the hard questions. I’ve seen you love on her like a proud auntie or fairy godmother. You’ve protected our privacy fiercely, drawing curtains and adding a sign to the door. You’ve done some impressive acrobatics hopping up and down from counters so Erik and I could switch spots, despite the ventilator and a few dozen lines in the way. I’ve seen you check on me from your desk, making sure I was comfortable as I held my baby girl in the middle of the night for the last time. You assured me that it’s no trouble at all to put her back in bed if I needed to rest.

You volunteered to be her nurse on the hardest day of my life, one of the many reasons why I think about you every day. You brought clothes from home because you didn’t know if I had anything to change her into. You’ve granted me every wish on my sweet girl’s last day on Earth, minus the Xanax and vodka. You’ve laughed with me and let me cuss like a sailor, giving countless hugs and allowing me to be whatever I needed in that moment. I’ve seen the tears in your eyes as you placed Madi into Erik’s arms so we could say goodbye to our brave, strong girl.

To the “Special Teams” I see you.

I’ve seen you talk to my daughter in your baby voice and call her peanut.  You’ve checked setting after setting on her ventilator, rooting for her every step of the way. You ask me how she’s doing, even though you already know she’s having a great day. You always smile and say hi when you’re walking down the hall or offer a wave from a distance. You’ve done trial after trial to make sure she’s ready to be off the vent.

You gave Madi her first and only Christmas tree, decorated with bells and Beads of Courage, it will stay up year long at our house. No matter how many times we had to switch places to hold her, you were always there with a smile and saying “no problem at all.”

You come and chat with me to let me forget about how tough this can be. I get to tell you the dumb thing I did that week. You’ve listened to me happy or sad and remind me that it’s okay to not be okay. You ask if we’re eating and sleeping. You’ve offered meal vouchers on nights when we didn’t want to leave. I’ve seen you after a rough weekend and distract me with a funny story. You promise that if you come visit it’s not because someone called you to check on me.

You’ve allowed me to speak freely and openly without judgement. I’ve told you how hard this has been financially. You’ve provided resources and help when I was ashamed and embarrassed, assuring me that something like this can cripple a hundred thousand dollar savings account. You’ve called us to tell us someone adopted us for Christmas, I was so relieved.

You were there when I had to tell my thirteen year old daughter that her sister wasn’t going to come home, you listened as I apologized to her for what’s to come. I’ve seen you make Madi’s hand and foot prints, asking Tristyn if she wanted to help.

You’ve given me the power to be an advocate for my daughter, helping me make some really tough decisions. You’ve rallied the troops and packed her hospital room so I could read this very blog to all of you, that moment was incredibly special and I’ll cherish it always.

We’ve prayed together after our sweet angel gained her wings. You’ve helped usher my family and I out of her room, telling me we could stay as long as we wanted but you knew I couldn’t take it anymore. You’ve promised to stay with her until she had to go.

I’ve heard your voice on the intercom so I can come back to see my baby. You’ve given me a red sticker everyday and make sure I’m not full of icky germs. The occasional chocolate is a really good plus. You’ve stocked carts and given me bottles and labels galore.

I know that there are many more angels in scrubs and business casual gear that we don’t see but we appreciate you and everything you do to make sure our daughter is taken care of.

I am constantly telling my friends and family how amazing you all are. Sometimes they even ask for you by name. We pray for you everyday. Being in the cardiac ICU is rough and I hope you know that we appreciate and love you. You’ve become a special part of our extended family and made this journey that much easier.

I expected to grieve the loss of my amazing daughter but what I wasn’t expecting was grieving the loss of her amazing medical team. We miss you all so much.

Thank you doesn’t even begin to cover it but this thankful, grateful mama is going to tell everyone.

Heather Speakman has been married to her high school sweetheart Erik for 13 years and has 4 children, Tristyn Gage, Hayden and Madison. Madison was born with a heart defect called hypoplastic left heart syndrome with heterotaxy and 3 other defects. She lived for 41 days before she succumbed to complications of her heart defects and passed away on November 30th, 2017. Since Madi’s passing Heather has helped raise awareness for congenital heart defects. Heather is an avid blogger, and blogs as a way to help cope with her grief and shares her feelings in the hopes that people will know they’re not alone.

Delbert Collins

Our handsome baby boy Delbert was born at the Children’s Hospital Colorado in December 2017. Del was originally diagnosed with aortic stenosis but after he was born doctors were able to determine it was actually hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS). He spent his whole life in the hospital, and during this time he went through 11 surgical procedure, 5 of which were open heart. At 2 months old he suffered a stroke leaving him without 40% of his brain function. Even through all of this he continued to fight. Delbert won his fight on Father’s Day 2018 and became one of the most beautiful Angel’s our family will ever know. He was so strong and fought so hard, and we will forever miss him. I hope he brings as much happiness to heaven as he did to us while he was here.

August Recap- Finances and CHD

CHD take such a huge toll on patients and their families, mentally, physically, and financially. Finances can be such a daunting conversation when it comes to CHD. This series in August attempts to make that conversation a little less scary, so that families may feel like they have some tools to conquer the financial aspect of CHD. 


The Ways we Pay for CHD

Qualifying for Social Security Disability Benefits With a Congenital Heart Defect

Congenital Heart Disease in an Era of High Deductible Health Plans

Conquering CHD… And Medical Bills with Akina!

Inside Out



Qualifying for Social Security Disability Benefits as an Adult with CHD

Qualifying for Social Security Disability Benefits as an Adult with CHD


Tens of thousands of adults are thriving with congenital heart defects. While many are able to live full lives, it’s possible that at some point your heart function will decrease and you’re unable to maintain employment. If you’re no longer able to work due to your heart condition, you may be eligible for Social Security disability benefits. The Social Security Administration (SSA) offers monthly resources for people who cannot work. While a CHD does not automatically qualify, thousands of adults may be eligible.


Medical Eligibility for Social Security


The SSA uses its own medical guide, known colloquially as the Blue Book, when determining whether an applicant will be eligible for disability benefits. The Blue Book lists exactly what medical results or symptoms you’ll need to be approved for Social Security with your CHD. There are many cardiovascular disorders under which someone with a CHD could be eligible. Here are a couple of examples:

Chronic heart failure: this will qualify if you have systolic heart failure with diastolic dimensions greater than 6.0 cm or ejection fraction of 30% or less. You can also qualify with diastolic failure with left ventricular posterior wall plus septal thickness totaling 2.5 cm or greater, OR an enlarged left atrium greater or equal to 4.5 cm.

Arrhythmias: these will qualify if they’re uncontrolled with medication and you have episodes that cause you to faint or nearly faint.

Symptomatic congenital heart disease: there are three ways to qualify under this listing. If you have cyanosis (blue discoloration of skin) at rest, plus hematocrit of 55% or greater OR arterial O2 saturation of less than 90% in typical room air.

You can also qualify if you have “intermittent right-to-left shunting resulting in cyanosis, plus an arterial PO2 of 60 Torr or less.

Finally, someone with symptomatic congenital heart disease will qualify if they have secondary pulmonary vascular obstructive disease with pulmonary arterial systolic pressure elevated to at least 70% of the systemic arterial systolic pressure.

The entire Blue Book is available online, but (as you can see) the listings were written for medical professionals and can be very challenging to read for typical CHD patients. If you’re not sure if you’re eligible for benefits, you should review the Blue Book with your cardiologist to get an idea as to whether you’ll qualify.


Starting Your Application


The easiest way to apply for Social Security benefits is online on the SSA’s website. If you’d like the help from a Social Security representative, you can always apply in person at your local SSA office. Call the SSA toll free at 1-800-772-1213 to schedule an appointment to apply online today.

It should take five months or so to hear back from the SSA regarding your claim. Once approved, you can spend your monthly benefits on your upcoming medical care, childcare, home modifications, rent or a mortgage, groceries, or any other daily living needs.

You can apply for Social Security online at


For more on when and how to apply, more helpful links include: (Blue Book) (SSA offices nationwide)



Deanna Power is the Director of Outreach at Disability Benefits Help, an independent organization dedicated to helping people of all ages receive Social Security disability benefits. She’s currently thriving with Ebstein’s Anomaly w/VSD and is forever grateful for the Adult Congenital Heart Program at Boston Children’s Hospital. If you have any questions on how you or your child could be eligible for Social Security disability benefits, she can be reached at