Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of women in the United States. While nearly 80 percent of cardiac events can be prevented, cardiovascular diseases continue to be women’s greatest health threat, claiming the lives of 1 in 4 women. This year, HCA Healthcare patient Sofia Montoya speaks up for our mothers, sisters and friends as the youngest national spokeswoman for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women 2019 “Real Women” class.

“No matter what life throws at you, never give up. Find a way to adapt and keep going.” –Sofia Montoya

“It means so much to me because I get to share my story and be a voice for a younger generation that is going through any sort of heart condition or disease,” says Montoya. The nineteen-year-old college student joins seven other remarkable women who claim powerful stories of heart disease survival. These “Real Women” are banding together to encourage all women to make heart health a priority.

A special heart…

Born at HCA Healthcare affiliate Presbyterian St. Luke’s Medical Center and cared for at what is now known as Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children (RMHC), Montoya was diagnosed with a rare condition, Holt-Oram syndrome, characterized by congenital heart defects and upper limb anomalies. The Englewood, Colorado native had significant health challenges ahead, including her heart located on the wrong side of her chest, an abnormal hole between her heart’s upper chambers and an unusual path of blood-flow inside her heart.

“She was in critical condition and spent her first six months in our Neonatal Intensive Care Unit,” said Dr. Reginald Washington, Chief Medical Officer of Presbyterian St. Luke’s Medical Center and the Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children.

Dr. Washington, Montoya’s first cardiologist, watched over the young girl as she endured multiple surgeries, including stomach surgery when she was one-day-old, open-heart surgery at five months of age to repair her congenital heart defect, hand surgery at age two to repair multiple defects in her hand – including the creation of an opposable finger so that her hand would be more functional – and a pacemaker at age seven.

Growing up at RMHC, “It really feels like family, especially when I think about my parents spending six months here when I was a baby,” Montoya says. “The physicians and nurses are always understanding and caring and the hospital has always created a positive atmosphere for me and other patients.”

Conquering her congenital heart defect

Choosing to not let her health issues hold her back from a “normal” life, Montoya strives to keep herself healthy. As a youth, she participated in soccer and even marched in the marching band as a percussionist.

Now a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Montoya says she has a typical college life – one she hopes can inspire others facing health challenges.  She bikes to campus from her apartment and walks to classes. She sees a cardiologist each year and will undergo surgery to replace the battery on her pacemaker in a few years, but doesn’t require any medication.

“Making sure I’m eating well and exercising is proving to myself that I can take care of whatever heart I was given regardless of the circumstances,” she said. “All that happened has made me realize that I am here because I fought for it and so I need to protect myself at any cost.”

Montoya hopes her story will inspire others to never give up and she hopes she can highlight the importance of funding research. American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women movement has been at the forefront of raising funds to support breakthroughs in science and technology that save lives – like Sofia’s.

Montoya recently participated in a STEM Goes Red event. STEM Goes Red is a new American Heart Association event dedicated to empowering high school-aged girls to improve the heart and brain health of all Americans through careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). She hopes her story will highlight the importance of funding research.

“Last year, I got to speak to a group of high school girls at Metropolitan State University in Denver,” Montoya said. “It was such an amazing opportunity to be able to speak to how much technology plays a role in medical advancements. When I first got my pacemaker, the battery lifetime was seven years. When I got a new one, it was 13 years. That advancement has played a huge role in how I live my life. It’s so important that STEM is added to the mix of everyday school life because it can really change lives.”

Montoya particularly enjoys sharing her story with kids doing school-based fundraisers for heart health – something she participated in as a child, yet hadn’t realized the true value of that funding until adulthood when she saw the value of funded research.

“I had so many kids tell me about their relatives who had heart surgery, so it was great to see how they connected with how the money they raised was helping people,” she said.

“I see Sofia several times a year when she comes by to visit and its always rewarding to see her. She is a bundle of energy. She has never felt sorry for herself and never became angry about what she has been through,” Dr. Washington said. “She is so enthusiastic not only about her life but how she can share her experiences with others. She is an inspiration to us all.”

How do you know if your child has a heart defect?

Congenital heart defects (CHDs) are the most common type of birth disorders in the United States. About 40,000 babies are born with CHDs annually. Using fetal ultrasounds, these defects are often diagnosed in utero.

Dr. Reginald Washington, Chief Medical Officer of Presbyterian St. Luke’s Medical Center and the Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children

“Congenital heart defects affect the way the heart pumps blood through its chambers into the body,” says Dr. Washington.  “Sometimes a CHD is simple and doesn’t require treatment, other times it may be more complex requiring multiple surgeries and life-long follow-up care.”

Thanks to improvements in technology and treatment advances, survival rates for children with critical heart defects continues to improve.  RMHC now has an Adult with Congenital Heart Program for these patients and they grow older and still need specialized care.

The Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) and The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have recommended that all facilities delivering babies check newborns for critical congenital heart disease (CCHD) before they leave the hospital. Hospitals, including all HCA Healthcare affiliate hospitals, check this through a test, called pulse oximetry, where a special sensor is placed on your baby’s hand and foot to measure blood oxygen levels. AAP has also provided an algorithm for follow up for those who do not pass the screening.

Although a CHD is present at birth, symptoms may not appear right away. Signs and symptoms of CHDs can vary depending on the condition. “A partial list parents should be on the lookout for, include but are not limited to, shortness of breath during activity or feedings, pale gray or blue skin color, unusual sweating, failure to grow properly, chest pain and fainting,” offers Dr. Washington.

February is American Heart Month. Located in Denver, Colorado, Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children at Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center, is part of HCA Healthcare’s HealthONE family.