When other children would ask Zoe Cardwell about the scars on her chest, she’d have fun making up a story.
“I’d say, ‘Oh, I was in a knife fight,’ ” Cardwell said. “My mother would tell me ‘That’s the scar that saved your life.’ ”
Zoe is 16 now, a junior at Puyallup High School. Born with five heart defects, she underwent major surgery when she was six days old. This month, she spoke in public for the first time and made it count.
“I addressed the Pierce County Council and talked about congenital heart defects, how they’re all around us but rarely seen,” Zoe said.
“If someone is in a wheelchair, you know they have a health issue,” she said. “You can’t tell when someone standing beside you has a heart defect.”
The council responded by declaring Feb. 8-14 Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Week.
“I was very impressed with Zoe’s passion that not enough people are aware,” said council member Joyce McDonald of Puyallup. “And it wasn’t just a matter of letting people know about the problem, she had a solution — pulse oximetry tests for all babies.”
The American Heart Association says as many as 40,000 children a year are born with heart defects, and many go undiscovered until it’s too late. A pulse oximetry test is noninvasive and measures oxygen in the blood. It can help determine if a patient, even at birth, has heart defects.
“It’s not mandatory in Washington,” Zoe said. “It should be.”
She is one of the lucky ones. Her condition was discovered two days before she was born.
“It was my very last ultrasound, and I had a different technician,” said Emalee Cardwell, Zoe’s mother. “She was a musician, and she noticed the baby’s heartbeat was different. That was on Thursday.
“On Saturday, I was induced and had Zoe on Saturday night. There were 10 people in the room waiting to help her. Monday morning, she was on a medevac flight to San Diego, and her father and I were on a commercial flight following her.”
Any heart defect can be frightening for a parent. Zoe had five of them.
She rattles them off, sounding like a third-year medical student: Atrial septal defect, ventricular septal defect, transposition of the great vessels, coarctation of the aorta and double outlet right ventricle.
“I went to San Diego to see a specialist, Dr. John Lamberti. Our doctors up here said he was the best.”
A cardiovascular surgeon, Lamberti was renowned for his work with children. Instead of multiple surgeries over a period of months, Lamberti did one — and worked on all of those defects.
“You’re never cured, but I was fixed,” Zoe said.
There have been no physical restrictions placed on Zoe, who has run track and played volleyball and tennis.
“She has two brothers — Chase and Sam — and she always managed to keep up with them,” her mother said. “I make sure all her teachers know about her condition. They all know emergency procedures.”
Since surgery, Zoe has never needed one.
“It’s weird to think about how I lived, and so many others have died,” Zoe said. “It’s chance, luck, all that stuff. It doesn’t scare me. I like spreading awareness. All my close friends know my story, but I don’t just tell people about it. If it comes up, I talk.”
But she was the one who took the initiative to address the County Council after a conversation with her father, Dan, who works as a county planner.
Zoe’s actions might speak even louder than her words.
Mended Little Hearts is a nonprofit organization to help families of children facing heart defects, and Zoe often babysits for kids in the group while their parents get counseling or information.
Her affection for the young may stem from her own experience.
“She was quarantined for the first six months, and she was so tiny,” Emalee Cardwell said. “We don’t drink or smoke, there was no indication of a problem until that last visit. Then they cleared out the office to tell me.”
For Zoe, there was never a moment like that.
“I don’t remember my parents ever telling me; I’ve just always known,” Zoe said. “I had open heart surgery. I have the scars prove it, and I’ve always had them. It’s never bothered me.”