Discussion Forum
A place for registered ACHA members to discuss issues with other members of the ACHA community and provide and receive support.

Meet Our Ambassadors

We are in the process of compiling Heart to Heart Ambassador profiles. We will be adding them here; check back often!

Are you interested in being matched with a Heart to Heart Ambassador or becoming an Ambassador? To learn more and access the application forms, please click here.

Donita Atkins
Olathe, KS
Born: 1976

I was born with truncus arteriousus. I have had three open heart surgeries and currently have a cardiac resynchronization therapy and defibrillator (CRT-D). I am a research nurse in cardiology. I become an ambassador to help others, because someone once helped me. I know that sometimes it can be a struggle to find someone who understands what you are going through—that is why I became an Ambassador.

Cassandra Bates
Hattiesburg, MS
Born: 1981

I was born with tetralogy of Fallot and had my first surgery at 6 months, a Blalock-Taussig shunt. Shortly thereafter I had two additional surgeries, one at age 2 to repair the congenital defects and replace the pulmonary valve and one at age 4 to repair the repair. I had my most recent valve replacement in 1999. About six weeks later, I was a freshman in college at UC Davis and haven’t slowed down since. I am an avid long distance backpacker and endurance cyclist, with two crazy cats, fish and a husband who lovingly puts up with my “not to be slowed down” attitude. I became an ACHA Ambassador because I want to meet others like me and be able to have the ability to share in cardiac experiences with others and give an empathetic ear when it is needed. I want to encourage others to live life fully and embrace their congenital heart condition and not be ruled by it.

Betsy Hastings Block
Villanova, PA
Born: 1964

In January 2010, I had surgery to replace my pulmonary valve, a follow-up to surgery I had for tetralogy of Fallot in 1972. While my physicians were terrific and shared excellent information with me, I would have benefited from the emotional support that a fellow ACHD patient could have offered. As a working mother with two young boys, ages 6 and 8, I had so many concerns about my situation and how I would get through it. Fortunately for me, I had a great recovery and when I learned about the Ambassador Program shortly after my surgery, I knew I wanted to get involved. My experience as an Ambassador has been immensely statisfying, as I am now in a position to offer the type of peer support and informational resources I had been seeking myself.

Sareet Bluestone
Sharon, MA
Born: 1981

I was born with a single ventricle. I had a modified Fontan when I was 8 years old, and my childhood was a happy one with slightly overprotective parents. I grew up knowing that I had a “hole in my heart,” but thinking that I had been fixed and there was nothing to worry about. Unfortunately, I found out the hard way that having a heart defect meant having a lifelong challenge, and that there will always be something to worry about. That was when I found out about ACHA, and it was great to meet other people with CHD who had been through such similar experiences! It was nice to know I wasn’t alone—and that is why I am looking forward to being a H2H Ambassador, to help other patients realize they aren’t alone, and that we can share our experiences and give strength, support and friendship to one another.

Bill Camilleri
Monroe Township, NJ
Born: 1954

I was born with tetralogy of Fallot in 1954 and in 1966 had corrective surgery. I was doing well until 1969, when I got my first pacemaker. I was small and the pacemaker was large, so it was placed in my abdomen, where it fit. I had it changed in 1972 and again in 1973. In 1980 I got my first dual-chamber rate-responsive unit; I felt better and it was the first time I had a heart rate that changed. I had my device changed several times until 2004 when I got my first ICD. I had that replaced in 2007. In 2010 I got a Bi-V ICD and now I am doing quite well. From the early days in the 1970s, my doctors would ask me to speak to other patients in the hope that seeing such a young person with a pacemaker would help them adjust to the idea for themselves. Since then, I have continued to speak to new patients and families in diverse forums as a patient and in my career as a medical administrator. Now, I am looking forward to meeting new people and sharing my experience as a H2H Ambassador.

Tony Cordaro
Conroe, TX
Family Member

Tony is the father of Dr. Anthony R. Cordaro, Jr., one of the original co-founders of ACHA. Tony was involved from the beginning of ACHA as one of the first board members helping the organization through its initial growth phases in securing its 501(c)(3) designation and assisting in the success of its first conference. After taking a leave from an active involvement for a few years, and seeing the phenomenal growth of ACHA, Tony wanted to get back involved as an Ambassador for the organization. Tony says he is humbled at seeing what the organization is today with its exponential growth. Most importantly, he is deeply impressed at how many lives of individuals and families that ACHA has touched and is touching today in both subtle and dramatic ways.

Barbara De Maria
Glendale, CA
Family Member

Twenty-two years ago, I almost felt guilty attending congenital heart parents’ support groups. After all, my son Max had the “Cadillac” of defects—as the diagnosing pediatric cardiologist referred to his tetralogy of Fallot—and most parents in these groups were dealing with much more challenging medical situations. I sought families with experiences similar to ours—complete repair with textbook-perfect results and a positive prognosis with no restrictions—and realized than even as a parent of a thriving CHD kid, I still wanted more information. Months after Max got his new pulmonary valve in 2010, I discovered the ACHA website. There, I found a community of parents and patients, many of whom over the course of their lives, shared my desire for more knowledge and the need for support. As would any parent, I want many resources to be available for Max as he begins taking responsibility for his own healthcare. As an Ambassador, I look forward to being an ACHA resource, providing much needed support, and empowering others to advocate for their own healthcare.

Meghan Deltry
Ballston Lake, NY
Born: 1980

I was born with tetralogy of Fallot and underwent my first corrective surgery at nine months of age. In 2008, I had my pulmonary valve replaced. I live in upstate New York and work as an attorney and a campaign fundraiser. Growing up, I wished I could meet someone else with a congenital heart defect so that I didn’t feel so isolated. When I underwent my second open heart surgery, I wished I could speak with someone else who had also had the same experience so I could gain their prospective. Imagine my delight when in May 2011 I learned about ACHA and the Heart to Heart program—all my wishes came true! Because I have been in the position of needing someone to talk to, I look forward to giving that support and guidance to other people living with CHD.

Katie Dempsey
Columbia, MD
Born: 1987

I was diagnosed at birth with transposition of the great arteries. I had my first procedure when I was a few hours old to make my heart more suitable for surgery. When I was a week old, I was the seventh infant my surgeon performed the arterial switch on. I grew up restricted from many activities and missed out on a lot of experiences. When I was 23, I discovered ACHA, which instantly connected me to so many great people and gave me the tools I needed to finally transition into an ACHD clinic the following year when I started experiencing symptoms for the first time. I became an ambassador to inspire people to get the care they need and deserve and to make sure everyone with CHD gets connected to this incredible community.

Jill Domanski
New Rochelle, NY
Born: 1982

I was born with transposition of the great vessels, pulmonary atresia and ventricular septal defect—just five years after my sister was born with the same defects. It was as if I grew up with my own personal H2H Ambassador. Having someone who shared the same experiences and understood what it meant to be living with CHD was priceless and made me feel “normal”—something I took for granted. I lost my sister in 2002 and it started to hit me that we weren't “fixed” and CHD was always going to be a part of my life. Thankfully, my mom and I discovered ACHA and attended a conference in 2011, which was life-changing. It was so incredible to be in a room with hundreds of people who shared similar life stories. Hearing about all of the hard work ACHA has been doing to improve the lives of patients and families was inspiring. Being a social worker, it felt natural to become an Ambassador and provide support and education to others with CHD. I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to be a part of this remarkable program and organization.

Kim Edgren
North Grafton, MA
Born: 1966

I am a mother of three with transposition of the great vessels, pulmonary stenosis and ventricular septal defect. Over the years I have had two stents, a Rastelli procedure, my conduit replaced twice surgically and in 2011, received a Melody Valve and two shunts after finding myself in congestive heart failure. I have always had a great medical team close by and know how lucky I am to have quality care available to me. I have been involved with ACHA for some time and I am excited to be an Ambassador and look forward to meeting and supporting others on this livelong journey!

Rob Faust
New Orleans, LA
Born: 1975

I was born 12 weeks early with tetralogy of Fallot with absent pulmonary valve. I had my first repair at 16 months and pulmonary valve placement and replacements at 21 and 24 years old. I also recently had cardiac arrest and subsequently a Melody valve and ICD implanted. Despite all of my issues, I grew up playing every sport and even had the opportunity to play soccer in Europe while in high school. I continue to compete and have in the last two years completed three half marathons. I want to show people that a heart condition does not define you and need not limit you. The ability to work with others and to provide hope to them and their loved ones is something that I have long desired to do and working as a Heart to Heart Ambassador affords me that opportunity.

Amy Fesmire
Horsham, PA
Born: 1981

I have tetralogy of Fallot with an absent pulmonary valve. After a surgical repair when I was four, I was blessed with an uncomplicated childhood and early adulthood. At age 26, I had open heart surgery. With such a drastic and unexpected turn, the way I viewed myself as an individual and my future changed from a healthy newlywed and grad student with a life full of possibilities and excitement to a sick, heart patient living on borrowed time. I didn’t think I could possibly survive a second open heart surgery. After three months of living in isolation and fear, I learned that surgery was not yet necessary. That was four years ago, and I am now back to viewing my heart defect as a small part of my life rather than the thing that defines it. The friends I have made through various opportunities with ACHA make sure I know that I am not alone every time I go to the cardiologist. They (and my mom!) are what get me through each appointment. Being an Ambassador provides me with the opportunity to provide support for others so that they are not alone either.

Deb Flaherty-Kizer
Schenectady, NY
Born: 1957

I was born blue. My mom was told I had some heart “problem” and would probably not survive. At 18, my heart defect was diagnosed as Ebstein’s anomaly, a malformation of the tricuspid valve. I am now 56 and have not yet had any cardiac surgery, although I may need it at a future date. My adult congenital cardiologist did advise my husband and me against childbirth, so we choose to adopt and were blessed with two children—adopted siblings—who we brought home when they were each five weeks old and who are now in their 20s. I strive to maintain a lifestyle as active as possible, and participate in 5K walks, indoor triathlons and swimming. My goal is to walk a half marathon. I’ve learned to thrive, not just survive, with Ebstein’s. ACHA has enabled me to not feel alone with my disease. I’m hoping that as an Ambassador I can empower, support, and encourage others with congenital heart defects to live their best lives possible.

Laura L. Wright Goldenschue
Bluffton, TX
Born: 1958

I was born in 1958 with tetralogy of Fallot. I have to consider myself fortunate and do not take life for granted. As I always say “I have a congenital heart defect. I live with it, but it’s not my life.” I had my major correction in 1967 when I was 9 and not until 2006 did I have my pulmonary valve replaced. I had a heart healthy son in 1986 whom I lived through vicariously through his athleticism. Since I can remember, I’ve always wanted to give back and be supportive of others who are like me. I never found anyone until 1998 when I met many with all types of heart defects on an online listserv; then, ACHA was formed. I have been very active from the beginning and chose to do so by joining the Ambassador program. It is important to me to help others understand that they are not alone and that there is a resource available to them.

Jacqueline Goodyear
Los Angeles, CA
Born: 1964

I was born with a single ventricle, which includes: hypoplastic left heart syndrome, mitral valve atresia, double outlet right ventricle, total anomalous venous return, and pulmonic stenosis. Being the only child out of six born with a heart defect, I never felt as though I belonged, but always had a fighting spirit. I have met children and a handful of adults living with CHD, and then the nurse in my cardiologist’s office told me about ACHA. The first time I went to the website I was in complete awe of the amount of us that are out there. I have participated in Congenital Heart Walks, but when I heard of the ambassador program, and I knew this was what I wanted to do. I look forward to getting to know more adults with CHD, and I hope to be a positive addition to Heart to Heart Ambassador program.

Melissa Hartman
Ponte Vedra, FL
Born: 1968

“You should not have stayed away so long! You need surgery, and I don’t want you to wait.” These were shocking words from my ACHD cardiologist. Like most adults, I had been living life without properly caring for my congenital heart defect, tetrology of Fallot. I was the lucky one who was the first TOF repair at Emory in Atlanta in 1972 at the age of four. With only a few interventions between four and 40, I figured I was set for life. When my cardiologist told me I needed another surgery, I was stunned. Once again, I was lucky. I was referred to a wonderful surgeon who was able to save my pulmonary valve and repair my right ventricular outflow tract. As I recovered and realized how truly fortunate I am, I decided I needed to help educate everyone about the importance of lifelong care with an adult congenital specialist.

Laura Hoagland
Minneapolis, MN
Born: 1985

I have tricuspid atresia, atrial septal defect, ventricular septal defect and pulmonary stenosis. I've had the Blalock-Taussig shunt, hemi-Fontan and Fontan procedures. At 16 I had an assignment to write a personal memoir. I remember complaining to my parents about how boring my life was and how my body was covered in ugly scars. My parents responded by offering me plastic surgery to remove all 10 surgical scars. I realized then and there how much self-hate and denial I had about my CHD. My journey to acceptance, knowledge and empowerment began that day. Every day I strive to live life to the fullest, wear my scars with pride and take advantage of the amazing gift of life that I have been granted—I have paraglided the Teton Mountains, sky dived in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, zip-lined down mountains at 50 miles per hour and I play soccer year round. Life with CHD is an amazing and challenging journey. I became an Ambassador so no one has to go through the journey alone.

Tina Kaufman
Portland, OR
Born: 1959

I was born with patent ductus arteriosus (PDA) and membranous subaortic stenosis. I had my first heart surgery at the age of 18 month to repair the PDA. When I was 21 years old I had my second surgery for aortic valve repair and my third surgery in 2009 for aortic valve replacement. I now have a permanent pacemaker as well. I, like so many others, fell out of the healthcare system when I was 12 years old, and learned the hard way the importance of finding a qualified ACHD cardiologist and being a good patient! Living an active and healthy life is my passion. I am a physician assistant in preventive cardiology as well as cardiac rehabilitation. I think my dual perspective (both as a patient and provider) gives me something valuable I can use to help others through the process.

John Latsha
Lewisberry, PA
Born: 1947

I was born with tetralogy of Fallot in 1947. I've had four open heart surgeries so far: a Blalock-Taussig shunt in 1958, a Waterston shunt in 1967, the total repair in 1980 and a pulmonary valve replacement (PVR) in 2005. I consider myself fortunate to have survived as long as I have; after all, I'm 65! I needed help in making decisions before my PVR surgery and members of ACHA helped me immensely. I just want to return the favor and give back to the CHD community. I know I didn't have any contact with other CHD patients my entire life until just before my PVR surgery when I was introduced to ACHA by my medical providers. It's a great organization and I want to add what I can to it.

Shannon McKay
Denver, CO
Born: 1975

I was born with a coarctation of the aorta and was diagnosed at 16. I was told I "should" be fine and fell out of care until April 2012. At 36, I was diagnosed with a grapefruit-sized aneurysm in my aortic arch and had my first open heart surgery in May 2012 to repair both issues. I had a frozen elephant trunk graft procedure along with several stents and a left subclavian artery graft placement. After I underwent my OHS I desperately wanted to find others who have experienced what I just went through. My family and friends are all very supportive but it was different to find others who could relate. I consider myself extremely lucky and continue to live an active lifestyle with my husband playing tennis, running, hiking, snowboarding and doing yoga. When I found ACHA I was delighted to know there was this amazing group of CHDers offering education and advocacy to others. I'm grateful to have the opportunity to work alongside ACHA as a Heart to Heart Ambassador.

Wendy Meil
Potomac, MD
Family Member

I am the mother of a 30-year-old son, Jason, who has tetralogy of Fallot. He was born premature (4 pounds, 6 ounces) and initially diagnosed only with a ventricular septal defect. Jason suffered failure to thrive, which continued until 8 months old, when he had a gastrostomy tube inserted for feeding. He ate nothing by mouth; all food was received via the tube until his open heart surgery when he was 3 years old. After the heart surgery, Jason was fine and living a normal life with few restrictions. When he was 26, heart issues began to reappear, and that is when we realized that ACHA was filling a great need. I decided to be an Ambassador so that I could be available to help people in need of finding information, resources and support during a usually very emotional time.

Lena Morsch
Carbondale, IL
Born: 1971

I was diagnosed at 4 months old with a ventricular septal defect and double outlet right ventricle. Shortly thereafter, I had my first surgery to band my pulmonary artery. My cardiologist wasn't optimistic that I could survive my CHD to adulthood. I lived almost 15 years cyanotic and dependent on medication. My second surgery allowed for me live a somewhat "normal life" and then in my 30s I found myself needing open heart surgery once again. For the first time, I dealt with my CHD as an adult. It was uncharted territory, yet it brought back all my fears from childhood. It was an experience that made me see life completely differently. I am grateful to ACHA for all the support, education and empowerment they provided me at one of the most terrifying times of my life. It's important for me to encourage those who are facing the same situation or health concerns. I'm extremely blessed and fortunate to be doing great after my third surgery. It is my wish to inspire those affected by CHD and to be a strong voice for ACHA.

Diane Neff
Madera, CA
Born: 1957

I was born with Tetralogy of Fallot. In 1959, I had what was at that time an experimental surgery to correct my defect. The doctors told my parents that my surgery had been successful, so I grew up with the common misconception that my childhood surgery had “fixed” my heart. For almost 30 years I had no problems and thus received virtually no cardiac care. Then in 2004, I started having problems that ultimately led me to an ACHD clinic for the first time. I was devastated and shocked when the doctor told me that not only was my heart not “fixed,” but that my problems were a late result of my original surgery and I needed to have a reoperation. For me, being an Ambassador means that I can offer the peer support, information and empowerment to others that I think I could have benefited from back in 2004.

Loretta Ninivaggi
Howell, N.J.
Born: 1958

I was born with tetralogy of Fallot and am the eldest of 5 children. Two brothers were born with ventricular septal defects, one needed repair and the other did not. I also had an aunt with a congenital heart defect. My first open heart surgery was at the age of 11 at the National Institutes of Health in 1969. The first surgery was to repair the tetralogy of Fallot. My second surgery was done 31 years later at Mayo Clinic. This surgery was a pulmonic valve replacement and annuloplasty. Since the surgery in 2000 I have had a pacemaker implanted and eventually was switched to an AICD. I have been married for 30 years to a wonderful husband and we have two adopted children who have been our joy. My involvement with ACHA started after my surgery in 2000, when I learned about the organization. I have found ACHA to be a wonderful organization that has helped me with dealing with my defect and providing me a good education experience. Thank you ACHA!

Karen Krandel Palans
San Antonio, TX
Born: 1958

I was labeled a “blue baby” when born and later diagnosed with tetralogy of Fallot. I had a surgical repair done in 1966 at the age of 8. At that time, I was told that my heart was “fixed” and the only restriction I ever had as a child was to stop and rest when I got tired from physical activity. I thought I was totally fine and went on to graduate from high school, college, work, get married, and have two heart healthy children. I was under the care of a various cardiologists during all this time. However, in 2000 I started having noticeable arrhythmias. After an electrophysiology study and ablation, I had a pacemaker/ICD implanted. Shortly after that, I was told I needed to have my pulmonary valve replaced, resulting in my second open heart surgery in 2001. About this time, I found the ACHA website and connected with others who could relate to what I was going through. I am so excited to be a part of the Ambassador program and look forward to providing support and comfort to others dealing with CHD issues.

Martha Pauly
Falls Church, VA
Family Member

I am on the ACHA Board of Directors and have been to Lobby Day every year since 2007 with my son, Andrew, who is now 27 and has been through seven open heart surgeries. He has single ventricle and transposition of the great vessels. We both work full-time and believe ACHA will improve and extend the lives of people with congenital heart defects. I became an Ambassador to provide support to other parents going through the ups and downs of navigating the medical needs of children and adults with congenital heart defects.

Michael Pernick
Roslyn Heights, NY
Born: 1988

I was born with tetralogy of Fallot and I’ve had three surgeries, most recently a valve replacement in 2011. Several months after my valve replacement, soon after moving to a new city away from my family, I was hospitalized with an infection in my heart. While I was recovering, I learned about ACHA and decided to get involved. I chose to become an Ambassador so I could be a voice of support and encouragement for people who are going through what I went through. I grew up on Long Island and worked on political campaigns and issue advocacy campaigns in northeast. I currently attend law school in New York City.

Marilyn Petrosie
Ridgecrest, CA
Born: 1945

I was born with tetrology of Fallot 65 years ago. My Blalock-Taussig shunt in 1947 soon quit functioning and there was nothing the doctors could do. Twenty-two years later circumstances and medical technology caught up and I had my repair. It changed my life. In 2008 I had my first pulmonary valve replacement surgery. My husband Tom and I have been married 44 years and have one son. I retired in 2004 after 30 years with the Department of Defense as a computer specialist. It has been a challenging 65 years and for many years I felt alone with my CHD. I had never met anyone with my defect until I found the ACHA Discussion Forum at age 54. WOW! Finally, people I could talk to with true empathy for how I felt. Now, as the administrator of the ACHA Discussion Forum and becoming an Ambassador I have the best of two worlds—computer duties and helping others by giving support, sharing experiences, providing information, and new friendships.

John Porterfield
Irvine, CA
Born: 1970

I was born and diagnosed with tetralogy of Fallot. A Blalock-Taussig shunt procedure was performed prior to my first open heart surgery in 1975. I was monitored by my pediatric CHD specialist until my late teens and then was told to find a new doctor as I was too old to be treated. An adult cardiologist did his best to help me during my 20s and 30s. In late 2010, after seeing my cardiologist for an illness, he mentioned to me that a local university heart center was treating CHD in adults; he connected me with ACHA and told me that I should talk with them. After a heart study we found that my pulmonary valve was failing. My pulmonary valve was replaced at a different ACHD clinic in California in June of 2011. ACHA has been a big help as a resource and knowledge base for my wife and me. I am now proud and honored to help participate in the Heart to Heart Ambassador program to help support others living with CHD.

Bill Psolka
Somerset, NJ
Born: 1965

I was born in 1965 with tricuspid atresia. I've had three surgeries: a Glenn, a Fontan and revised Fontan. I, like many others, believed that I was fixed after my 1976 Fontan, until I hit a wall and needed to have another surgery to replace the conduit and valve in 1999. This is when I learned that I needed to be going to a recognized CHD clinic, after wasting valuable time being somewhere that claimed they could treat me, when they really couldn't. In between the “speed bumps” of living life with CHD, I have been blessed with a wonderful life with my courageous wife, Karen. I'm a big proponent of taking responsibility for being informed about our own defects, because we're the ones who own them, like it or not, and we have the motivation to follow through with the details where others may not. Since through the years, ACHA has been a big part of my support system, which includes such heavy hitters as God and my family, I appreciate this opportunity to be involved with the Ambassador program and to be able to offer support to others.

Rick Puder
Holbrook, NY
Born: 1958

I was born with a coarctation of the aorta in 1958. Within days I suffered from congestive heart failure. The prognosis was so poor that my parents had me baptized immediately. Thanks to a doctor on staff who had experience with CHD, I was treated and survived until I could undergo surgery. I had my first surgery at age 4 and my second at 13. Six years ago I was told that I would need a third surgery—a thought that, honestly, terrified me. I did my research online and learned about the ACHA and met with members of a local group—what a godsend! They gave me the hope and inspiration to move forward with confidence, hope that could only have come from someone who shared the common the experience of growing up with CHD. Today, I lead an active life. I hike, work, travel—even my golf game is improving! I am excited about being an Ambassador because it will allow me to provide the same kind of hope, support and optimism that I received from my friends at ACHA when I needed it most.

Erin Reyhan
Manville, NJ
Born: 1986

I am a twenty-five year old living with truncus arteriosus and when I say living I mean, going skydiving, snowboarding, hiking, and truly experiencing life! I was diagnosed with truncus arteriosus when I was around six months old and throughout my experience, I have had many doctor appointments, three open heart surgeries, and tons of support from family and friends. Growing up, I always wanted to know other people who had CHD but struggled to find anyone. For me, the Heart to Heart Ambassador Program is an opportunity for me to share my experiences with others and hopefully provide others with some support and comfort.

Tina Marie Rinaldi
Eugene, OR
Born: 1965

I was born with corrected transposition of the great arteries, dextrocardia, numerous ventricular and atrial septal defects, and subpulmonic stenosis. I had my first heart surgery at age 11. After many complications and many weeks in the hospital, I went home with a “fixed” heart. My family and I misunderstood that the surgery was a “cure.” I was unaware that I would require future re-operations and that as I grew older I would face other types of problems. At age 27, I had my second heart surgery. I know now that I will require care by a physician specializing in adults with congenital heart disease for the rest of my life. I’m excited to be a Heart to Heart Ambassador so that I can help other families and adults understand that ongoing cardiac care is necessary for anyone born with congenital heart disease.

Kim Russell
Acworth, GA
Born: 1960

I was born in 1960 with a double inlet single ventricle (left) with pulmonary atresia and chronic cyanosis. I was diagnosed two weeks after birth, because a medical professional in my family noticed how blue my lips and nails were. The diagnoses came with the doctors telling my parents I probably would not live to be one month old. At three months I had my first Blalock–Taussig shunt and at age four, I had another. My final surgery was in 1992, at the age of 32. I am now 51 and doing well. All along the CHD journey, my parents and I knew no one else with CHD. It was difficult not having anyone with which to share information and concerns. That is why this ACHA Ambassador program is important me. No one else should to have to grow up or experience any CHD issues alone. We are all in this together!

Tom Russell
Acworth, GA
Family Member

I was born with a “normal” heart. I was introduced to the world of adult congenital heart disease when I got married in 1981. My wife Kim is a survivor who has a single ventricle with double inlets. Over the years she has had three heart surgeries. The most difficult part about being the spouse of a survivor is figuring out what health issues to worry about and what health issues are normal. In my day job I work as a human resources professional. I work closely with recruiters, managers and legal staff to understand the complexity of various employment laws and how they affect hiring and retention decisions. My hope is as a Heart to Heart Ambassador, my experiences as the spouse of a survivor and in human resources will allow me to provide information to spouses, as well as familial support to those who struggle with these issues.

Danny Spandau
Boca Raton, FL
Born: 1954

I was born with tetralogy of Fallot and had my first surgery in 1956, a Blalock-Taussig shunt. I had a complete TOF repair in 1960 and was “cured.” I visited my pediatric cardiologist a few times over the next 15 years and then had no contact with any cardiologist until around age 45, when I needed an examination for life insurance purposes. Over the next 10 years, my cardiologist thought it would be a good idea to perform a stress test and carry a Holter monitor every couple of years. An arrhythmia was observed and an ICD was installed at the age of 55. My cardiologist recommended that I transfer to an ACHD clinician—he recognized the need for a more specialized care due to my medical history. Diagnostic tests were performed and I will eventually need a pulmonary valve replacement. I am thankful to ACHA for all of their efforts in so many ways—education, advocacy, training, patient and clinician assistance, and so much more. Becoming an ACHA Ambassador is an honor. I want to get more involved with helping others.

Julie Emanuel Spangler
Manhattan Beach, CA
Born: 1970

I was born in 1970 with a loosely diagnosed “heart murmur.” I dutifully attended cardiologist checkups in New York City as a child, never asking any questions. It wasn’t until I was 29, an avid runner living in Los Angeles, that my symptoms became more acute. I had not been to a cardiologist in more than 10 years—lost in the transition to adulthood. After a series of mishaps, tears and one very lucky referral I found my way to a center specializing in ACHD. I went from having a closet heart condition to being a patient overnight. Surgery was scheduled to remove a subaortic membrane previously undetected in my left ventricle and repair my damaged aortic valve. I took a crash course in clinical vocabulary, insurance, disability, surgery prep and recovery. I have since married, have two wonderful children, completed marathons, learned to surf and have a new sense of purpose. There may be another surgery in my future, but this time I will be prepared. Through the Ambassador program I hope to make sure others are not lost in the transition, as well as help with specific questions or simply listen and understand.

Kerri Straub
Omaha, NE
Born: 1973

I was born without a wall between my atriums. I have had five open heart surgeries—at 9 months, three years and five years to build/repair the wall, and at ages 24 and 36 for a mitral valve replacement and more ASD repair—in addition to three pacemaker surgeries. At age 39 I found out I also have polysplenia (several mini spleens), which is in line with my heart defects. When I was out of high school, I was moved into adult cardiology, where I was cared for until I started doing research for some symptoms I was having. That's when I found the ACHA website and directory, and was able to locate an ACHD clinic in my city. I'm married to a police officer, and we have two dogs and two cats. I'm so excited to be a part of this program and help others in the ACHD community.

Jenny Syrup-Miles
St. Louis, MO
Born: 1972

I was born with pulmonary atresia. Referred to as a “blue baby,” several doctors advised my parents to take me home and make me comfortable for my remaining days. However, thanks to my parents’ perseverance and a bit of being in the right place at the right time, we found our way to Mayo Clinic. Cut to 40 years later with eight open heart surgeries (first in 1972 and most recently in 2010) under my belt, I am so thankful and excited to be a H2H Ambassador! Finding ACHA and meeting others with a CHD who share the same experiences and understand what it means to be living with CHD is priceless. It was important for me to get involved and hopefully be a positive example of living with CHD. As an Ambassador I am so fortunate to be able to provide support, share the highs and the lows, and educate others who have CHD. I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to be a part of this remarkable program and organization and hope to inspire and support other adults with CHD.

Anna Taylor
Turlock, CA
Born: 1981

My defect is tetralogy of Fallot, but I am not the “typical case.” I use that term loosely. At 10 months during one of my repairs I had a myocardial infarction (heart attack) on the table. Because of that, I was always under cardiac care. I had my first implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD) at the age of 19 and at 27 got upgraded to a cardiac resynchronization therapy device (CRT-D) as a result of congestive heart failure because of endocarditis. In the middle of all that, I found out that I contracted hepatitis C from a blood transfusion during one of my first surgeries before testing blood became a standard. Even though I have had many ups and down, I live life to the fullest and am encouraged to help others. I learned so much about taking charge of my heart health and hope to help other do the same.

Russell Tenofsky
San Francisco, CA
Born: 1967

I was born with tetralogy of Fallot and had my first surgery at UCSF in 1975, when I was eight. As with many ACHD patients, I thought I was “fixed” after my first surgery. I had no subsequent problems; in fact, I was extremely active. Also, like many ACHD patients, I stopped going to see a cardiologist after I was about 21. I had no problems at all until I was 42, when I had to check myself into the ER due to severe shortness of breath and arrhythmia problems. In April of 2009, I had corrective ToF surgery, a Maze procedure, and my pulmonary artery replaced. Three months later I had an automatic implantable cardioverter defibrillator implanted, which is also monitored every three months. Luckily, I have basically no physical limitations and have returned to virtually all of the physical activities that I was doing prior to my second surgery. As with every ACHD patient, I suffer the ups and downs of dealing with my disability, and I’ve had all of the similar experiences of dealing with insurance companies, hospitals, ERs, pediatric ICUs, and pages upon pages of forms.

Donna Turransky
Randolph, MA
Born: 1958

I am a 53-year-old living with transposition of the great arteries, ventricular septal defect, atrial septal defect and pulmonary hypertension in a town 10 miles south of Boston. I have never had any type of surgical repair. Because of the wonderful care I have had access to in my life as well as receiving the gift of finding several others with ACHD via an internet chat room several years ago, I have been able to live my life to the fullest. I am a Heart to Heart Ambassador to help those touched by CHD. Whether patient, family member or caregiver, live life as well as possible.

Emily Wells
Portland, OR
Born: 1975

In 2008, I was diagnosed with coarctation of the aorta and a bicuspid aortic valve after three years of improper diagnoses. Within six months, I had a repair for the coarctation. I was 33 years old and in the middle of graduate school. Despite the shock and anger I felt, I knew that there was only one way forward—to keep taking care of myself. I hike, I do yoga, and I cook and bake healthy things! Even with all the different diagnoses and symptoms among CHD patients and their support teams, there are several things that we all need: ongoing care, emotional support and a healthy lifestyle.

Erin Winsett
Plano, TX
Born: 1980

I was born in 1980 with tetralogy of Fallot. In the fall of 1983, I had my corrective surgery. I also had the mitral valve widened in 1992 by a valvuloplasty. I grew up not knowing anyone with a heart condition, much less my heart condition. I was told by my mother from a young age to not let my condition stop me from having a normal life. She insisted I see a cardiologist yearly and I still do! In 2008, my CHD specialized cardiologist, whom I found on the ACHA Clinic Directory, said I would need my pulmonary valve replaced in the future and that scared me. I sought out support and found ACHA! I want to help others to not feel alone and to have the support I never got growing up.

Jennifer Witucki
Newport Beach, CA
Born: 1978

I was born in 1978 with a single ventricle, transposition of the great vessels, cyanosis and other defects. I underwent a modified Fontan procedure in 1982. By 2008, I was in atrial fibrillation. I had a Fontan revision and a Maze procedure in 2009, and three weeks later had a pacemaker implanted. When I heard about the Ambassador program, I immediately wanted to apply. In 30 years, I had never met any other person with a CHD. I wanted to be a part of this to help people see that living with CHD is not always a bad thing. My heart defect has really made me the person I am today, and I want to be able to meet others just like me and relate to each other in ways that I cannot with my family or friends. I believe that each one of us so unique in our way and that we are so blessed. Even though we live every day knowing life is short and precious, it’s that reason we want to give back even more and help as much as we can.

Ken Woodhouse
Chicago, IL
Born: 1981

I was born with tetralogy of Fallot and had my first surgery at the age of eight months. Like many adults with CHD, I thought I had been fixed and was lost to cardiology care as an adolescent. For more than a decade, I lived a normal and active life, never really thinking of myself as a heart patient. Following a bicycling accident in August 2011, I was suddenly reminded that I am not fixed. Later that year, I got a transcatheter stent for a severely narrowed artery; in January 2014, I had my pulmonary valve replaced. I decided to become an Ambassador so that I could help other adults with CHD and their family members navigate some of the more challenging and overwhelming aspects of life with congenital heart disease.

Sarah Woodruff
Silver Spring, MD
Born: 1978

I was born with Shone’s syndrome (aortic coarctation, bicuspid aortic semilunar valve, insufficient muscles operating my mitral valve). A fall out of bed one night when I was four landed me in the emergency room for a concussion. The doctor asked my mother about my heart condition—her response was, “What heart condition?” A few days later I was being seen at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where I grew up. A month later, I had my coarcted aorta repaired. That was fall 1982 and I have been in cardiac care ever since. By spring 2010, my aortic root had dilated to the point that I needed additional surgery, so I had valve-sparing aortic root replacement, though at some point I may need one or more valves replaced as well. New scars, more stories, better health! I am a spouse, a parent, a daughter, a friend, a statistician, a teacher, an H2H Ambassador and an adult who does what she needs to in order to thrive with CHD.

David Wyner
Louisville, CO
Born: 1970

I was born with transposition of the great arteries and had a Mustard procedure at around two years old. I’ve always enjoyed an active lifestyle, and CHD has rarely hindered me. About 10 years ago I received my first pacemaker and have since had the generator replaced once. I still experience a few episodes of arrhythmia every year, but thankfully they’re manageable with drugs or the occasional cardioversion. For well over a decade, I’ve been very blessed to be in the care of the amazing team at the UCLA Adult Congenital Heart Center, but I know firsthand how frustrating—and possibly frightening—it can be to seek care from a cardiologist not specifically trained in CHD. I also know firsthand how important it is to focus on the things you can control rather than worry about the things you can’t. I’m so grateful that ACHA has created such a robust community of support and education, and I’m very honored to help members and their families thrive with CHD any way I can.

LeeAnne Zaroski
Spring Hill, FL
Born: 1967

I was born with pulmonary atresia, ventricular septal defect and tetralogy of Fallot—we were told to go home and pray. When I was 10 years old, our prayers were answered and I had an experimental surgery at the Mayo Clinic to start correcting the defect. I followed this first surgery up with another one at age 11. The next 29 years I lived my life to the fullest. I got a degree in business and in nursing. I became a traveling nurse and traveled all over the United States. I had fun by jumping out of an airplane, flying in a hot air balloon, hiking the Grand Canyon, and traveling the world. This all came to an end when I turned 40 and had to have my third open heart surgery. This included an ablation, extensive surgery and placement of an AICD. By the grace of God I survived. I wanted to become a Heart To Heart Ambassador because I wanted to use my unique experience both as a patient and cardiac nurse to help others going through the same situation.