The scene at Yale-New Haven Hospital Saturday resembled a birthday party: clowns providing amusement with magic tricks, athletes signing autographs and a cake in honor of the children. But this was no ordinary party, and the participants not your average children.
The hospital was celebrating the second annual Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Day, now recognized by 47 states to raise awareness of heart defects and to increase medical intervention. The day also honored children treated for such ailments.
Yale athletes from the football, field hockey, volleyball and softball teams were among those who offered their support.
“The kids look up to us, so this gives us a chance to interact with them,” softball captain Monica Lebron ’01 said. “It’s such a good feeling to see the kids smile.”
Football player Jim Schroder ’03 said it was important to offer encouragement to children with such medical challenges.
“I told them not to let anything stop them,” Schroder said. “There’s nothing they shouldn’t strive for.”
Master of ceremonies John Fahey, director of pediatric cardiology at Yale-New Haven, praised technological advancements that allow for quicker diagnosis and treatment of congenital heart defects.
“There are many techniques in the field of interventional cardiology, which allow us to open up valves and avoid surgery,” Fahey said. “Fifteen years ago, the only solution would have been open-heart surgery.”
Fahey added that prior to 1940, the life expectancy of children born with defects was often less than a year, but that science now allows patients to live practically normal lives.
The most notable guest was world-renowned heart surgeon William Glenn, who pioneered innovations in congenital defect treatment during his tenure at Yale-New Haven Hospital. In 1958, he introduced the Glenn Shunt, a procedure now standard in treating defects by separating the pulmonary and systemic circulation in the heart.
“I’ve had guys who are 6-foot-2 come up to me and say I operated on them when they were 6 years old,” Glenn said. “That’s the greatest pleasure one can possibly experience.”
Other presentations were made by cardiologist Christopher Snyder, Lenore Cameron of Little Hearts Support Group and Lisa Franco of the American Heart Association.
Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Day was conceived by Jeanne Imperati of North Haven, whose son Matthew, 14, was diagnosed with an underdeveloped left ventricle and other heart defects just nine days after birth.
After years of struggling with Matthew’s illness, Imperati joined an online support group through the Children’s Health Information Network. Her membership inspired Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Day.
“I wrote up a proclamation and said ‘Let’s start sending them to governors,'” Imperati said. “Governor Rowland was the first to sign, and soon proclamations started drifting in from other governors.”
Imperati said despite the number of children born with such abnormalities, public knowledge is still limited.
“These defects are the most prevalent birth defect, yet get no attention compared to other illnesses,” Imperati said.
In only its second year, Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Day is recognized in 14 countries. New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. also signed a proclamation of acknowledgement.