LVB as a babyTo the folks in Chamberlain, South Dakota, the little girl born on Aug. 2, 1957, seemed perfectly healthy.

Within months, her parents weren’t so sure.

Laurie Van Brunt wasn’t developing the way other babies did. She was more lethargic, moving less than the other tykes.

Relax, a family doctor said. Babies develop at different rates.

Acting on her motherly instinct that something was amiss, Laurie’s mom sought a second opinion from a doctor in a larger nearby town. He listened to Laurie’s heart and knew something sounded strange. He referred them to another hospital about 10 hours away – the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

“If I hadn’t gone there,” Laurie said recently, “I wouldn’t be alive.”

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In a normal heart, the left side of the heart pumps blood to the body, while the right side pumps blood to the lungs. Laurie was born with a flaw in that system.

The wall separating the two lower chambers of her heart had a hole, a condition is called ventricular septal defect (VSD). This allowed blood to travel between her heart’s two lower chambers, and into the lung arteries, forcing both the heart and lungs to work harder, while also causing the lungs to become congested.

By the time Laurie reached the Mayo Clinic, her tiny body could no longer handle the extra work. A lung collapsed, and she was admitted to an intensive care unit.

At the time Laurie’s condition was diagnosed, open-heart surgery was in its early stages – rarely used on adults, much less infants. So doctors kept her in the ICU for six months and waited for the research to advance.

That wasn’t the only emerging technology they would need.

To keep oxygenated blood flowing to her organs during the open-heart surgery, doctors required a mechanical lung. The Mayo Clinic had only used this device eight times; four patients survived.

“My parents were told I had a 1-in-4 chance of making it, but without surgery, I’d die,” Laurie said. “It wasn’t much of a choice.”

Pioneering surgeon John W. Kirklin beat the odds – and, of course, so did 13-month-old Laurie.

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Laurie Van Brunt Professional Head ShotLaurie has had no further heart problems, in part because she maintains a healthy lifestyle.

If not for the scar and her annual checkup with the cardiologist, you’d never know the trauma she and her family endured.

She certainly wasn’t telling anyone.

Although she was considered a “miracle baby,” and her progress was monitored by researchers – including participating in studies through her 30s – Laurie shared her story with only family and close friends.

She didn’t know anyone else with a congenital heart defect – that is, born with a heart defect. As a teenager, her scar left her feeling insecure while changing clothes for gym class.

“I was always a little embarrassed to have others see it,” she said.

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February is American Heart Month, and Feb. 7-14 is Congenital Heart Defects Awareness Week. This is a great time to spread the word that CHD is the No. 1 birth defect, affecting roughly 40,000 babies in the U.S. each year and more than 1 million worldwide.

The American Heart Association funds more cardiovascular research than any organization outside the federal government, having invested in excess of $3.7 billion, including more than $100 million annually since 1996. The AHA is among the leaders in the fight against CHDs.

Laurie donated regularly to the AHA starting in her 20s. But she never became actively involved.

That changed in 2010. Laurie had joined Chicos FAS Inc. as brand president for Soma Intimates. The Fort Myers, Florida,-based company was a corporate sponsor for the local Heart Walk, and Laurie was surprised to learn that participation among employees was low.

At a company rally for the event, Laurie publicly shared her story for the first time.

Her colleagues were in tears. Inspired by her story, employee participation in the Heart Walk zoomed from 71 to 576.

“I was glad I did it,” Laurie said. “It encouraged me to tell my story more to help others live.”

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Laurie is now involved with various AHA fundraisers and awareness campaigns, including Go Red For Women and a new campaign through Soma called Touch a Heart. She’s also shared her story for Heart Heroes in Miami, a camp for families and kids with congenital heart defects.

“It was really touching,” she said. “I would have loved to have something like that for me and my parents.”

Laurie, who has been married 32 years and has a 25-year-old son and 21-year-old daughter, is particularly passionate about AHA’s support of research on heart health over the years.

“I owe my life to them,” Laurie said in a video supporting AHA’s Go Red For Women campaign. “They invested in the research that gave my surgeon and my parents the guts to go against the odds and save my life.”

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Photos courtesy of Laurie Van Brunt

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Do you know a “Story from the Heart” we should tell?

Send an email to stories@heart.org that’s as brief or as detailed as you’d like.

Previous “Stories from the Heart” include:

From overseeing stroke care to being a stroke patient

Camper. Hiker. Triathlete. And at 23, a stroke survivor

Med school student helps save a patient’s life — his