Last week, Jimmy Kimmel gave an emotional update to the world that his newborn son, Billy, was born with a congenital heart defect that required surgery to correct. As Mr. Kimmel started his monologue, he assured his audience that this story “has a happy ending.” I’d like to assure the Kimmel family that as with this first chapter’s happy ending, many more wonderful and fulfilling chapters in Billy’s life are possible. I know because I also was born with Tetralogy of Fallot and I’ve done so much in my life. After living and traveling abroad, raising two kids, 37 years of marriage, and with my 65th birthday on the horizon, I can tell you that life is grand, despite the scar on my chest.
When I was born in 1952, surgery for these heart defects was still relatively new. I was born a textbook “blue baby” from a lack of oxygen. I was as fortunate as you are, Billy, to have excellent doctors. My first surgery, and the first to be offered to patients like us, is known as the Blalock-Taussig shunt. Dr. Helen Taussig, who helped develop the thinking behind this procedure that bears her name, was my pediatric cardiologist. In those days, she recommended waiting until the heart had grown to almost adult size, so I had my first surgery three days before my 10th birthday. Before then I saw the world from my father’s shoulders or from a stoop or squat to catch my breath. I had many friends who treated me like any other kid, but also were patient with my stooping and limitations. I have so many happy memories. After the shunt, I felt cured. I could walk without stooping, I could ride my bike, swim the length of the pool, and I even played field hockey! Just before I turned 14, my father announced that I was going to have the second corrective surgery done that summer. I was a bit miffed and as a normal teenager, I informed my father, “NO”. Well, I had more great surgeons and nurses and I did have that surgery, and then I really was “cured”. There was no holding me back! So now I have some advice to share.
Take care of your health, as everyone should
I know this seems obvious but it’s important. Some will refer to your condition as congenital heart disease. Personally, I have lived my life believing that I was born with heart defects that were corrected. However, just as I see the dentist every six months for preventative care, I see a cardiologist every year. So find a congenital heart cardiologist you trust and have regular check-ups. It will make you and your parents feel better.
Listen to your doctor, then live life to the fullest
Remember, Billy (and parents), the sky’s the limit. By the time you’re an adult that may include outer space as well! Ride a bike, play sports, hike, ski, run, jump, travel, swim, do whatever work brings you happiness, and play, play, play. If the doctor says it’s okay, then go! I did all these things and more thanks to my family who never sheltered me, gave me good advice, and encouraged me to see the world and love life.
My father always told me, “You had two heart defects and they were fixed. Now you are healthy.” I have had a wonderful life since. I wish all this and more for you, Billy.