By Sean Barron
If you spent time with 6-year-old Alyson Smith of Columbiana, you would quickly learn that she enjoys playing with her four dogs, dressing her dolls, drawing pictures of herself for her grandparents and going on school field trips.
Perhaps one of the last things you would suspect, however, is that this fun-loving little girl underwent five hours of heart surgery a little more than a year ago.
“The support [of family and friends] is what got us through the hard times preparing her for surgery,” said Alyson’s mother, Kathy, a speech therapist and director of special education with the Westlake School District near Cleveland. “It helped the girls not be scared.”
On Saturday, the Joshua Dixon Elementary School first-grader and her sister, Emilee, 8, were anything but scared. They were excited to be among an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 people who participated in the 19th annual Youngstown area Heart Walk at Youngstown State University’s Watson and Tressel Training Site.
The American Heart Association hosted the event, which was to raise funds to support cardiovascular disease and stroke research as well as local and nationwide educational programs, organizers said. So far, roughly $190,000 has been raised locally, noted Gina Berila, communications director.
People walked a track in the training facility or on a 1.5-mile route on and around the campus. Some took part individually or as part of teams such as “Young at Heart,” “Boardman Medical Supply Has Heart,” “Simon Roofing & Sheet Metal Corp.” and “Warren Fabricating & Machine Corp.”
The Smiths were among more than 50 family members, friends and coworkers who made up “Alyson’s Bumpy Heart Team.”
Since her surgery June 15, 2010, at the Cleveland Clinic, several accolades have come Alyson’s way, including having been asked to toss out the first pitch before a Cleveland Indians game a month later. More recently, she was named 2011 Heart Child for sharing her story in support of greater awareness of heart disease and stroke.
So, has the surgery a mere 15 months ago curtailed Alyson’s activities or slowed her down?
“Alyson runs, she jumps, she cheers and she dances,” Kathy said.
Alyson’s mother and father, Kevin, finance director for Columbiana, advised those who have heart disease or have suffered a stroke to take advantage of health care and support available in the Mahoning Valley.
For Kristen McCaskey, Christmas 2009 is likely one she’ll never forget.
On that day, McCaskey, 26, prematurely gave birth to twin daughters, Elizabeth and Makeylah, after having suffered a heart attack that morning.
“I had pain in my arm and screamed bloody murder,” McCaskey recalled. “My mom rubbed my arm to ease the pain, but I could not catch my breath.”
After the pain in her left arm were a gray complexion and vomiting — and a 7- minute ride from her Girard home to St. Elizabeth Health Center in Youngstown.
At the hospital, the medical team initially assumed she had gone into labor, which prompted her doctor to perform an emergency Cesarean section. After the birth of her daughters, McCaskey underwent a triple bypass open-heart surgery, she noted, adding that her heart had stopped six times during her ordeal.
McCaskey expressed hope that Saturday’s walk also will educate more women and children about the dangers of obesity, such as the stress extra weight places on the heart.
Also part of McCaskey’s team were her husband, Shane, 4-year-old son, Landon, and several family members.
“We encourage people to use today as a reminder that it’s always a good day to start walking,” added Berila. “It’s never too late to focus on your health.”