What makes your heart happy? It’s a simple question that has many different answers. It’s a personal question that only you the individual truly knows. Heidi wants you to share that answer, to live that answer. To Heidi doing what makes you happy is not just a question you should ask yourself every day, it is a question to be lived every day. Because to quote her, “Life is short, live it with a happy heart."
Heidi has now survived two open heart surgeries; one at birth and the second 18 months ago at the age of 25. She knows that life is a fragile, beautiful gift. That question and that quote are what her non-profit Project Happy Hearts is built upon. In her early 20s she had to do yearly check-ups with cardiologists, she would see children and families facing situations much more difficult than her own and wanted to help in some way. Healing from her own second open heart surgery, she found herself three months later in Peru standing at the top of Machu Picchu feeling utterly happy, grateful for her life and overcome with happiness. There she decided it was time to live her dream and created Project Happy Hearts. Project Happy Hearts (PHH) is a non-profit with a mission to spread happiness and create awareness of congenital heart disorders. It will be celebrating its first anniversary in August.
Heidi was born with congenital heart disorder where her two major arteries were connected to the wrong ventricles. She was the 100th baby to receive a now commonly practiced surgery called Arterial Switch Procedure that saved her life.
She lived a normal active childhood. She feels lucky to have had it. She had a scar she felt mostly embarrassed by growing up. She loathed to tell the story, like any young, “I want to be like everyone else” gal would. She said she never really even thought about her heart until high school while running track and field, when she felt a pain (in her heart) that left her unable to perform the exercise being asked. Her doctor told her this was not uncommon, that it was something to be aware of. From that moment on she was.
Not until after college and living in San Francisco did the pain start to get worse. Running became more difficult, and she started to feel pain in her left arm. Alarmed, she went to her doctors and they told her that she could either get beta blockers(medication used to manage cardiac arrhythmia and prevention of a second heart attack) or she would need to consider having another surgery. She said it was about a week later that they called and said that the option would be surgery and that it needed to be right away. The few weeks leading up to the surgery were the most alone she’s ever felt.
She found it hard to talk about and found it hard for others to talk about it as well. She wanted to be strong for not just herself but those around her. Recognizing that sometimes the best comfort can come from a third party. She hopes with PHH she can help others know that they won’t have to go at it alone. She recognizes that people need people, especially in times like this. She never wants herself or anyone to experience that kind of loneliness ever again.
One of the quotes on the shirts she sells for PHH (which you can get here) is, “I woke up this happy." She said it's half a play on Beyoncè’s "I woke up like this" and partially because the first picture of her out of surgery is with a big smile on her face with tubes surrounding her. It reminds her of how grateful she is for her life, a chance to live it fully.
After her surgery, she tried to get back into her life as quickly as she could. She returned to her job in San Francisco a month out of surgery only to realize that it was not going to be something she could do. She realized that her old life wasn’t hers anymore. She left San Francisco, came back to where she grew up in Orange County, went through a break up, and started on a path that has led her here; to great joy and, you guessed it, happiness.
Her heart is doing well right now, but of course, she has fears. But she knows that she can’t live in those fears. She has to accept them and move forward. She does not want to be defined by them. She chooses to look for happy.
I asked her how she deals with everything. She says journaling is something she loves, does often because it’s mostly about just getting it out or if it’s too much she gets outside. Going for a walk, being outside helps to ease those moments.
She’s working on being open and sharing her story more. Through it, she has decided to no longer hide or to be censored or live for anyone else. She wants to share her thoughts freely, bravely, and to live her life in a conscious way that she knows is best for herself.
I ask her what her biggest lesson has been. She says patience. She can get frustrated in others’ lack of understanding or ignorance on the subject of congenital heart disorders or of the heart in general. Patience with herself as she grows more comfortable in her story, in feeling vulnerable, knowing that the once very small scar is now much larger. She’s learning to see all of its true beauty.
What she looks forward to the most is Project Happy Hearts being in every hospital in America, which she knows it will be, and spending her life with the one she loves the most. She said the two most common things people answer to “What makes your heart happy?” is love and people. Creating a life with the person she loves is something she looks forward to the most.
Additionally, she answers: “Watching joyful communities… watching people experience large amounts of joy, whether it’s the older men playing chess in China Town, a dance party, or even a couple on a date. I smile every time I see something like that.”
If you would like to donate or help make someone’s heart happy please visit: www.Projecthappyhearts.com
photos Mary Claire Roman
makeup, hair, styling Janelle Walker
written Janelle Walker
edit Kristen Fogle