• Cardiology Patient Stories

    Pen pals share experiences with congenital heart defects

Alli Szewczynski

Born almost 60 years apart, pen pals Carol Allan and Alli Szewczynski share an unusual bond. Both were “blue babies,” born with heart defects that impaired proper blood circulation, causing a blue tinge to their skin. And both had successful life-changing surgeries at Mayo Clinic.

Carol Allan’s story

Carol, 68, of Calgary, Alberta, was diagnosed with tetralogy of Fallot, a rare congenital heart condition caused by a combination of four heart defects. The defects meant that oxygen-poor blood flowed out of Carol’s heart and into the rest of her body.

As a child, Carol was extremely fatigued, out of breath and lacked the stamina to walk, run or play outdoors. When she was 15, her school principal requested she stay home until her health improved.

Carol’s local cardiologist advised her to see John Kirklin, M.D., a pioneering heart surgeon at Mayo Clinic. “My doctor had recently traveled the United States, observing several surgeons, and he said what Dr. Kirklin was doing was amazing,” she says.

When she was 16, Carol underwent what she recalls was an extremely risky procedure where Dr. Kirklin opened up her pulmonary artery and corrected her defects. Her blue coloring disappeared. “When my best friend saw me for the first time after surgery, she was so startled by the difference in my coloring — pink instead of blue — that she reached out to touch me to make sure it was really me,” says Carol.

Alli Szewczynski’s story

Alli, who lives in Rochester, Minn., was born with tricuspid atresia — lacking a valve between two chambers of her heart and the right ventricle. Blood couldn’t flow through her heart and into her lungs to pick up the necessary oxygen.

“She couldn’t walk without being out of breath, be active with her friends, play outside in winter or participate in gym class at school,” says Tammy Szewczynski, Alli’s mother.

Alli, age 9, had her third corrective cardiac surgery in August 2010. Harold Burkhart, M.D., a cardiovascular surgeon at Mayo Clinic, created a path for the oxygen-poor blood returning to the heart to flow directly into the pulmonary arteries for transport to the lungs.

“She’s a new kid, bursting with newfound energy. Her lips and fingers and toes are pink instead of blue,” her mother says. “She was so excited to have gotten her first-ever real grade on a report card for gym class.

Long-distance pen pals

A mutual acquaintance connected Carol and Alli’s family. Carol began writing to Alli to relate her story and encourage the youngster.

“Alli is thrilled to have a pen pal in Canada who also has a congenital heart defect,” says her mom. “It gives Alli a bond with an adult who has been through what she went through. It gives her — and all of us — hope. We’re so glad Carol is in our lives.”

The first gift Carol sent to Alli was the book “The Little Engine That Could.” “I read it over and over when I was young and told myself, ‘I think I can, I think I can,’” says Carol.

Tammy says Alli, an avid reader, loves the book. “Carol and Alli are both fighters,” she says. “They keep going no matter what.”

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