Hi there! My name is Sydney McFall and I am the 2018 summer intern for Project Heart. I am currently a student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. This December, I will be graduating a semester early with a public relations major and minors in business and psychology. I am the youngest of five kids and am a lover of sunflowers, pugs, and all things Disney.
My history with Project Heart starts off with the news I received in 2015 on the night of my sister’s gender reveal party. This would be the second baby born in my family and we were all bursting with excitement. I voted girl and was proven wrong as I bit into the glazed doughnut, revealing blue filling. We had a great time celebrating the upcoming birth of the now-known gender of a beautiful baby boy. I couldn’t help but notice, however, that my sister and brother-in-law seemed a bit distracted throughout the party. I figured, “they are just over-whelmed with everyone here or tired from work.” Little did I know when they went to the doctor they received not only the news of the gender but also that their baby’s heart appeared abnormal.
The abnormality was determined to be a congenital heart defect called Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome or HLHS. This, in the simplest terms, leaves the infant with half a functioning heart. Our lives were completely turned upside down. What was supposed to be the most exciting time, the anticipation of a new baby, turned into a time of anxiety and unknown. Through extensive research of the rare and often fatal defect, I was horrified I would never be able to meet my second nephew. The idea of him having surgery days after his birth seemed unreal and impossible. Not only that, if he did make it through the first open heart surgery he would have a compromised immune system and need at least two more surgeries. However, my nephew, Nico, proved to be stronger than I ever anticipated. Four days after he was born he rocked his first surgery and recovery.
He was so much more than his condition, the life in his eyes brought me new meaning and a new passion.
Meeting him for the first time in Boston a few days after his surgery with my surgical mask strapped over my face and hand sanitizer slathered all over my body, I saw the reality of who this baby was. He was so much more than his condition, the life in his eyes brought me new meaning and a new passion. Before Nico I saw heart disease as an old man’s problem. A condition brought upon someone who smoked too much, ate too much red meat, and used butter as a side dish. Wow was I wrong.
I was unaware that congenital heart disease was so common. So much so that 1 in 100 children are born with it. I did not realize CHD claims the lives of more kids than cancer and I was mad at myself. Why did it take it me this long to realize the problem of the grossly underfunded research? My mind continued to run and I couldn’t stop asking, “Why is no one talking about this? These children need a cure not just a temporary fix!” Without the research that was put in to determine successful surgeries, Nico would have died shortly after his birth. Research allowed doctors to determine life-saving, but temporary, surgeries. Research pioneers new and innovative ways to improve the lives of those suffering from a CHD. Awareness brings funds to then further research.
So then, I made it my mission to educate everyone in my life on the cause. Through presenting facts to my sorority, telling my friends, their families, their friends I was slowly spreading awareness. I needed people to have a simple understanding, so they knew that Nico was not cured after his first surgery. When his second surgery came around it proved to people what I had been trying to illustrate — his heart is not forever fixed.
During my research and quest to find information to share with those around me I stumbled upon Project Heart’s website. I loved their mission and that they were in my hometown of Nashville. So, when my sister asked if I wanted to go to Little Heart’s, Big Art I quickly responded, “Yes!” Dressed to the nine’s and a permanent smile on my face, I entered the gallery’s doors. Nico’s painting sold for over $100, I got to hear Tyler and Erica speak about their son’s journey and with tears in my eyes I bit into my last mini chicken-n-waffle appetizer. It was an amazing night with amazing people. My date even bought me a sunflower painting from the silent auction. Sadly, my meaningful night came to an end and I had to back to school. From that night on, I followed Project Heart through social media.
Cut to this summer and I have this opportunity to intern with Project Heart and Nico just got home from his third open heart surgery, the Fontan. I am so humbled to have a voice in the heart community. This summer I will strive to further the awareness of congenital heart disease, raise funds for CHD research, and encourage those in the community. I am forever grateful for this opportunity to do something I love and will work hard to do my best for Nico and those that inspire me.