After surviving two open-heart surgeries & battling heart disease since birth, local teen raises awareness of heart disease

BATON ROUGE — Marin Varnado is a survivor.

The 16-year-old LSU Lab School sophomore has been battling congenital heart disease since birth. With two open-heart surgeries and four pacemaker implementations under her belt, she bears the physical scars of her courageous journey.

Open heart surgery at three weeks old

Marin’s mother, Anna Claire William-Varnado, a home health nurse, recalls being unaware of any issues during her pregnancy. It wasn’t until a day after Marin’s birth that doctors informed them of the necessity of open-heart surgery within a few months.

The journey intensified as cardiologists discovered Marin’s condition was more severe than anticipated, prompting a recommendation for surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital. At three weeks old, on Halloween 2007, Marin underwent her first open-heart surgery.

“That surgery did not go well,” Anna Claire explained. “There were some complications. She came out of the surgery on a permanent bypass machine called ECMO for a week. She was on a ventilator for a month.”

“In and out” of the hospital

Numerous procedures followed, including a pacemaker and feeding tube installations for her heart disease. “In her first year of life, she was in and out (of the hospital) almost constantly with something heart related.”

After a few months, doctors had to go in and replace Marin’s pacemaker due to an infection. Besides another pacemaker replacement when she was nine due to a lead fracture, Marin was living life to the fullest despite her heart disease diagnosis.

Recently, there has been a rollercoaster of health issues for Marin. Two years ago, her heart developed irregularities, which medication successfully managed. Last summer, a pacemaker replacement and a corrective procedure for arrhythmias were performed. However, three weeks later, Marin’s health took a drastic turn during her sophomore year, leading to a sudden cardiac arrest.

“She went into cardiac arrest,” Anna Claire said. “Her stepmom called me, and I could hear (Marin) crying in the background. By the time I got to her dad’s house, she was gone.”

Anna Claire, drawing on her nursing background, administered CPR and managed to revive her daughter.

“I ran into I guess nurse-mom mode,” she said. “I just grabbed her off the couch and onto the floor. I did two rounds of CPR on her, and she started breathing!”

“She is just doing incredibly well”

Marin was rushed to OLOL Children’s Hospital where she was in the ICU for several days. Once doctors were able to stabilize her, she flew to Boston Children’s Hospital by medivac jet where she had surgery to put in a defibrillator and a pacemaker.

“So now, if she were to have another arrhythmia, which we’re praying she never does, the defibrillator could shock her heart back into a normal rhythm.”

“She is just doing incredibly well. We’ve been back to Boston twice for checkups, and everything is looking good. After multiple open heart surgeries, four pacemakers … this was by far the scariest and the hardest to recover from because it was so unexpected.”

Anna Claire says that heart disease did not keep her down. Marin not only resumed normal life, but also played soccer, obtained her driver’s license, and secured her first job.

“The most common birth defect is congenital heart defects”

As February marks American Heart Month, Anna Claire hopes sharing Marin’s story will raise awareness about heart health. Statistics reveal that approximately 1 in 77 children in the United States have a heart condition, with 40,000 babies born with congenital heart defects yearly.

“The most common birth defect is congenital heart defects, which is just the heart is not formed correctly in the womb,” Anna Claire shared. “Raising that awareness can help pregnant women know to ask about that in their ultrasounds, that’s always been something that’s important to me, because I did not know what her and I could have planned and prepared better hadn’t known she was going to be born with these effects.”

Identifying signs of heart disease & problems in children

Signs of heart problems in children can vary based on the condition. And while children are screened after they’re born, some problems can remain undiagnosed.

Some signs of heart problems in babies may include:

  • Trouble gaining weight
  • Bluish color to lips, nail beds
  • Difficulty with feeding
  • Fast or rapid breathing/difficulty breathing (even while resting)
  • Tiring easily while eating
  • Sweating while feeding

Some signs of heart problems in young children:

  • Passing out during physical exercise
  • Heart palpitations (fluttery heartbeat)
  • Shortness of breath while being active
  • Chest pain

While many teens undergo physical exams before sports, parents are encouraged to consult pediatricians if their children complain of chest pain or exhibit other heart symptoms during physical activity.

Anna Claire says she is sharing her daughter’s heart battles to empower others. Not only does she want families to know the signs, she wants others to get training in first aid and CPR — something she says saved her daughter’s life.

Learn More: Adult First Aid/CPR/AED Online

“CPR is is just huge to me,” Anna Claire said. “We want to make sure that the people around Marin know CPR. Her soccer coach, her teachers, everybody has become more aware of the need for that skill. Because (her cardiac arrest) could have happened anywhere, and if no one was there to jump in and do it, that’s when you lose people.”

The American Red Cross offers CPR and AED training both online and in-person.

Red Cross first aid certifications are valid for two years. If your certification is within 30 days of expiring, you can renew it by enrolling in one of our first aid renewal classes. These abbreviated courses allow you to learn the latest techniques and can help keep your memory fresh – so that during times of need, you’re ready to respond. Once your first aid training in Baton Rouge is complete, your certification will be valid for an additional two years.

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