Heart Walk focuses on living

By Bob Jackson

Participants walked to raise money and awareness for heart disease research.

YOUNGSTOWN — Just watching 5-year-old twins Molly and Morgan McGaffick walk along the track at Youngstown State University’s Stambaugh Stadium, you’d never know Molly is a survivor of a heart ailment that nearly killed her.

Strolling with her sister, surrounded by dozens of family members and friends, and peering at pictures through her pink View Master, Molly looked like a picture of health.

But her mother, Claudia, said it wasn’t always that way.

The girls were born March 16, 2003. Morgan was healthy, but Molly was born with a heart condition known as Tetralogy of Fallot with pulmonary atresia. It came as a surprise to the family because none of Claudia’s prenatal ultrasound tests indicated there was a problem.

“I had a perfect pregnancy, and when my babies were born, they seemed perfectly healthy,” the Salem woman said. “So for them to tell me, ‘We’re sorry, but your baby is going to die’ — it was devastating.”

Shortly after her birth, Molly was flown by medical helicopter to Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, where she had her first open-heart surgery at 4 weeks old.

She’s had several more surgeries since then, including the implant of a pacemaker in 2005, and a stent implant last year. She also has suffered a stroke, which caused paralysis that has since gone away.

This year, Molly represents the local American Heart Association as its 2008 Heart Child. She and her family, including Morgan, were among some 2,000 people who participated in the Heart Association’s annual Heart Walk at YSU on Saturday.

Walking along with Molly was her 70-year-old grandfather, Gene McGaffick of Lisbon, who wore one of the red caps sported by survivors of heart disease. He’s had two triple-bypass surgeries himself.

He handled his own surgeries well enough, figuring that he was in the hands of well-trained professionals.

”So many people go through this anymore,” he said, pointing to his chest. “It’s gotten to be where it’s almost like changing spark plugs.”

But when it came to seeing his infant granddaughter have to endure the same thing, it was a different story.

“It was hard,” he said. “She was so little, and she didn’t understand anything about it. She didn’t understand that she had to be still.”

Gene McGaffick said he doubts that his own experience will be much help to his granddaughter as she grows older.

“Everybody is different. She’ll have to go through it,” he said.

Claudia said Molly’s health issues also have taken a toll on Morgan, who often doesn’t understand why so much attention is focused on her sister.

“She doesn’t understand things like why Mommy and Daddy have to go [to the hospital] again, and why she can’t come along,” Claudia said. “It has been very difficult for her.”

Though Claudia said Molly seems to be fully healthy and vibrant, she said the family still will have more surgeries to face, keeping their future uncertain for now. Until then, the sisters seem perfectly happy.

“Molly keeps up with her sister. She loves to play,” Claudia said.

Also among the red-capped walkers Saturday was 29-year-old Stephanie Markey of Poland, who said she probably would not be alive today had it not been for a diagnosis in 2000 of her congenital heart defect.

“I had complained of chest pains since I was 12,” Markey said. “Everyone told me that it was just stress and anxiety. At one point I went to a doctor in Canton, and they sent me home; they said I was just a stressed-out college kid.”

But finally, when Markey was 21, a doctor at the Cleveland Clinic realized that her pains were caused by the congenital heart condition. She had surgery two weeks later to correct the problem. She said doctors told her that without the surgery, she probably would have lived only another three to five years.

“It was quite a shock to turn 21 and find out that’s how you’re spending your summer,” the mother of two said. “But it’s repaired and it’s all good now.”

While Markey walked, she pushed a stroller that held her children, 2-year-old Aidan and 14-month-old Abigail.

The Heart Walk is the American Heart Association’s largest annual fundraiser. More than 2,500 people participated in last year’s event, which raised $185,000. Organizers were hoping to raise $240,500 this year. Money raised goes toward the heart association’s research, advocacy and educational programs.

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