Doctors found Jeff Hammonds’ heart defect when he was just a few weeks old. It was a complex infirmity featuring four problems and a fancy name, tetralogy of Fallot. It would require a series of surgeries, the first at six weeks old and the last at age 12. The final surgery was performed by renowned heart surgeon Dr. Denton Cooley.
Claire Hammonds found out about her heart problem when she was 3. Doctors discovered an electrical problem called atrioventricular (AV) block when she was put under anesthesia for eye surgery.
Claire was 6 when she had her first pacemaker implanted to keep her heart beating properly. Jeff needed one at 13. Since pacemakers need to be changed about every five to eight years depending on battery life, both became familiar with the workings of Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, where their surgeries were performed.
It was there, while filling out paperwork to have their pacemakers replaced, that they met in 2005.
Jeff, from Houston, was 33. Claire, from Lafayette, Louisiana, was 20.
“Everything I can remember from my childhood, you were in there a couple days or within a week and you were moving on down the road,” Jeff said of the pacemaker replacement process. “This time they said, ‘We can’t schedule you for about a month.’”
To top it off, the system was so crowded he wouldn’t be alone.
“The description was, ‘We’ve got a long line to schedule that particular doctor, and we’re scheduling another patient at same time,’” he said.
“I was the other patient,” Claire giggled.
So, two days before their surgeries, as Claire and Jeff followed each other around that morning taking care of their pre-op procedures, they were finally able to meet and introduce themselves. Claire, however, was not alone. Her mom, dad and grandma were with her, Jeff’s mom also arrived to join the party and introduction process.
“The family met the first day,” Claire said.
After the surgeries, the two figured they would simply head home.
“Claire thought she’d go her separate way and never see me again or anything,” Jeff said. “That’s when it sunk into me.”
Jeff made sure he had a way to contact Claire and got her phone number.
“I called about a week later, and that pretty much started the relationship,” he said.
The long-distance relationship went on for two years, with Jeff usually making the 3½ hour drive from Houston to Lafayette by car. Other times he would fly.
This continued until one magical day when Jeff took Claire to Disney World.
The flight there was Claire’s first. The memories built from there, starting with a knock on their hotel room door and a man delivering a scroll inviting her to Cinderella’s Castle for an evening of fireworks, dining and fun.
“She had told me years before that she went to Disney World and got all these autographs and never got Cinderella’s,” Jeff said. “At the end, (the delivery man’s note) said, ‘P.S. Bring your autograph book.’”
Claire and Jeff were seated upstairs in the castle.
“The middle window, where everyone can see you,” Claire said.
After the fireworks show, several Disney characters came to the couple’s table, paying special attention to Claire.
“She said, ‘Why are they giving me all the attention?’ I said, ‘I don’t know,’” Jeff recalled.
After dinner, servers brought dessert on a covered platter.
“They took the cover off, and there was the ring in a glass slipper on a rose,” Claire said. “He knelt and he proposed, and I was just shaking and just in shock. It was amazing! It was just really amazing!”
The couple married on Sept. 8, 2007, two years to the day of the surgeries that brought them together.
Jeff and Claire are on their ninth and fourth pacemakers, respectively. Each has had one pacemaker replacement since their initial encounter.
Jeff, who is completely pacemaker dependent, expects to be put on the transplant list this year.
“I have no heartbeat. I haven’t had one since probably in my 30s,” he said. “The pacemaker keeps me going. That beat is set to 70 beats a minute, and that’s how I’m staying alive at the moment.”
Jeff is fairly active, has traveled the world, and considers himself pretty positive.
“Truthfully, I’ve talked transplant since I was 13 years old,” he said. “We talked about that procedure maybe it was time at 13, then at 30, and at 42, here we are again. So I keep beating the odds, in a sense.”
Jeff was told it is rare for someone his age to have undergone a Fontan procedure (the operation needed to treat his tetralogy of Fallot) and not already have had something redone or have a heart transplant.
“I don’t know if I win a prize for that or not,” he said.
Patients who as children had the Fontan procedure may need a heart transplant because the blood flow through the venous system is slow and the veins are congested, which can lead to swelling, fluid accumulation and protein loss.
Jeff is on a cocktail of anti-failure medicines and medicine to help prevent an atrial flutter that can send his heart racing. He takes care of himself by getting plenty of sleep and trying to eat well. He knows if he’s off-track because he’ll get signals like shortness of breath and dizziness.
“I can stop, take a break, recover, then move on down the road again,” he said.
Jeff and Claire are happy to share their story to help the American Heart Association raise money and bring awareness to cardiovascular diseases.
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 organization is a leader in efforts to beat, treat and prevent conditions such as those that affect Jeff and Claire.
In addition to February being American Heart Month, Feb. 7-14 is Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Week. A congenital heart defect is simply a heart problem that someone is born with, and it’s the No. 1 birth defect, affecting roughly 40,000 babies in the U.S. each year, with more than 2 million adults, children and infants living with a CHD.
“The AHA’s research, the funding they provide to help drive these hospitals to find innovations and new techniques, it’s what’s kept me alive for 42 years,” Jeff said.
As much as Jeff would like to participate in Heart Walks, his health won’t allow it. He hopes to do so again once he has a new heart.
For now, Jeff, Claire and their pets – a Maltese named Zydeco and a Siamese named Tito – will wait and hope for the best, knowing they have the support of the AHA and the caregivers who’ve become “family, essentially.”
“We have a good life here, even with everything,” Jeff said. “We have this group that helps us make it through, and we have a lot of fun, too.”
Photos courtesy of Jeff & Claire Hammonds
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