Cover Stories

Hope For All: American Heart Association

When doctors first saw baby A.J. Baggio, they said they didn’t know how he was still alive. At barely 3 months old, he seemed short of breath. “My parents knew something wasn’t right,” says Baggio, now 30. “I was admitted immediately for my first open-heart surgery.” He had three more such surgeries (at age 4, 17 and 19) and most likely will need another around age 35. He was born with aortic stenosis, a disease of the aortic valve, where blood flow from the heart to the aorta and the rest of the body is obstructed. He says one in 200,000 people have the disease.

“Anyone can have a child with a congenital heart defect,” says Jennifer Jaeger, executive director of the American Heart Association’s St. Louis chapter. “It can happen without regard to socioeconomic, racial or cultural background.”

The American HearOFC-american-heart--1.18t Association funds more research on children’s heart diseases than any group except the federal government. From 2012 through 2015, it invested $65 million in new research related to pediatric heart diseases, including congenital heart defects like Baggio’s.

Congenital heart defects, problems with the heart’s structure at birth, afflict at least 40,000 infants in the U.S. each year. These can include holes in the heart, narrowed or leaky valves, and malformed or missing vessels/heart chambers. Such defects can mean that too much or too little blood and oxygen passes through the vital organs. There are at least 21 types of defects recognized, with many additional variations; 25 percent of children will require invasive treatment in the first year of life.

“In most cases, we don’t know why defects occur,” Jaeger says. “But there’s reason for hope. Thanks to medical research, most babies with heart problems now survive to adulthood. An estimated 1.7 million American adults and children alive today have some form of congenital heart defect.”

Baggio speaks highly of the American Heart Association St. Louis and has been involved with the organization since volunteering with its annual golf tournament fundraiser in 2013. Now, he’s a member of an American Heart Association young professionals group that is helping with the 2017 St. Louis Heart Ball, slated for Feb. 25 at the Chase Park Plaza. “Each year, we try to touch on a specific heart condition to highlight the need for further education and research,” Jaeger explains. This year, the focus is on congenital heart defects.

“I always say I’m one of the lucky ones,” Baggio comments. “There are some who aren’t so lucky, but the association is creating initiatives that can help them.” Baggio, who is a financial analyst for SLUCare Physician Group, says he listens to the warnings and lives as healthily as he possibly can, exercising and eating right.

Last year, the St. Louis Heart Ball, one of nearly 200 that take place nationwide, raised more than $1.1 million.

The 2017 St. Louis Heart Ball takes place Feb. 25 at the Chase Park Plaza. This year’s chairs are Stacey and Rich Liekweg. Pictured on the cover, standing: Marion and Rick Oertli, Stacey Liekweg, David and Kerrin Kowach; seated: Rich Liekweg, Katelyn Jackson. For tickets and information, call 314.692.5625. 

Pictured: The faces of heart disease being introduced at last year’s St. Louis Heart Ball.
Cover design by Allie Bronsky | Cover photo by Tim Parker Photography