Thirty-nine years ago in a rural North Carolina hospital, doctors told Ken and Cindy Gray their daughter was “born blue and there was nothing they could do for her.” The news devastated the Grays, but Lauren didn’t appear ready to give up. Although she was still blue after several days, Lauren’s doctors saw that she was growing and thriving, and decided to transfer her to a more advanced hospital in hopes something could be done to save her life.
After a 2½-hour ambulance ride – an eternity to Ken and Cindy – a cardiologist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill examined Lauren’s heart and recognized her symptoms as Tetralogy of Fallot, a congenital heart defect where the pulmonary valve and the pathway where blood leaves the heart’s lower right-chamber is narrowed, making it hard to pass blood through to the lungs.
Lauren’s cardiologist recommended Lauren have a shunt surgically placed in her heart, but warned the Grays this wasn’t a cure, that they would have to wait to see what happened after the shunt was placed. It was a tough decision for the Grays to let doctors operate on their one-week-old baby, but they decided this was their best option.
Soon after surgery Lauren’s parents were given their first sign of hope: Lauren’s bluish tint was turning to a pink, healthy color. Doctors were quick to warn the Grays more surgery was likely and they would need to watch Lauren closely, as any kind of virus or cold could end up in her chest, causing more problems to her heart. Cautious but optimistic, the Grays took Lauren home a few weeks after her surgery and watched in awe as their little girl progressed from a sickly newborn, to a healthy toddler, and then grew to be a thriving kindergartner.
Then, when Lauren was seven years old, her heart began to show signs of trouble. Her cardiologist recommended angioplasty to restore normal blood flow to her heart. The angioplasty was a success and for the next 10 years Lauren concentrated more on growing into a teenager, focusing on activities like learning how to drive and dating, than on her heart defect.
“My parents made sure I had a normal childhood, taking me to gymnastics and dance class and worrying about me staying out too late. I did everything a normal girl does growing up,” says Lauren.
Then again, when she turned 17, there was no denying Lauren’s heart was again working harder than normal and might eventually give out on her. Lauren and her parents agreed to her cardiologist’s recommendations she undergo a Rastelli procedure, a surgery where her valve was replaced with a homograft (human valve).
“At 17 I wasn’t really concerned about the procedure,” Lauren says. “I was more worried about having an ugly scar.”
Once again, the surgery was a success. Today Lauren is 39 years old and doing very well. She has a minor leak in her valve and takes baby aspirin and blood pressure medications to control her condition. She knows she may need more surgery on her valve and hopes when the time comes, technology will have advanced even further and it can be performed through a minimally invasive catheter procedure.
These days, Lauren takes the time to tell her story and inspire others with congenital heart disease, showing them they can lead active, full and healthy lives, even after a shaky start in the world. She dedicates her free time to increasing awareness for people living with congenital heart disease.