Adult Congenital Heart Survivor Hopes to Raise Awareness, Money for Research

Congenital Heart Walk in Jacksonville Set for Saturday, April 6

Melissa Hartman of Jacksonville hopes the upcoming Congenital Heart Walk raises awareness of not only congenital heart disease, but also how important it is for adults with CHD to have regular checkups with their adult congenital cardiologist.

Melissa, 44, an instructor in the exercise science program at the University of North Florida, was born with tetralogy of Fallot, which includes four heart defects: pulmonary stenosis, overriding aorta, ventricular septal defect and right ventricular hypertrophy. Melissa had her first open-heart surgery at age 4 at a hospital in Georgia.

“I didn’t see a cardiologist from the time I was 17 until I was 30,” admitted Melissa, a mother to three girls ages 14, 12 and 8. Even then, she said, she saw typical adult cardiologists who aren’t specifically trained in congenital cardiology. She said often they weren’t sure what to do with her. “You need to be monitored by someone who knows what they’re talking about.”

When Melissa found out she needed another surgery, it had been two years since her previous appointment with her adult congenital cardiologist, James Joyce, M.D., with Jacksonville Pediatric and Adult Congenital Cardiology.

“Dr. Joyce was mad,” Melissa said. “He said, ‘You’re lucky you came in when you did. We were looking for this change and here it is; you’re having surgery.’ ”

The changes Joyce was looking for were increased pressure as well as dilation in her right ventricle. Other parts of the right side of her heart also were dilating.

Joyce immediately urged her to see Mark Bleiweis, M.D., director and principal cardiothoracic surgeon at the University of Florida Congenital Heart Center in Gainesville.

“Dr. Joyce told me, ‘Nobody else can fix this, you have to go to Dr. Bleiweis,’ Melissa said. “Before that, Dr. Joyce had always answered all of my questions to my satisfaction; he knew what he was talking about.”

Melissa and her family.
Melissa and her family.

Melissa underwent her second open heart surgery in December 2011 with Bleiweis, who has expertise operating on congenital heart patients of all ages. He repaired her right ventricular outflow tract — or, the portion of the right ventricle of the heart through which blood passes to enter the great arteries.

“Surgery was unquestionably the best decision for Melissa,” Bleiweis said. ““Her pressures dropped immediately.”

Melissa said she feels great and continues to do whatever her body allows her to do. She doesn’t let her congenital heart defect slow her down or stop her from doing the things she wants to do … like organizing a Congenital Heart Walk in Jacksonville.

“The congenital heart community is huge, but not everybody knows it’s here,” Melissa said. “I hope the walk brings the congenital heart community together and raises awareness of congenital heart defects.”