"My Heart Defect Doesn't Define Or Defeat Me, It Compels Me To Serve"

CHD Awareness Month is almost over, and I thought we should close out with a story from an amazing nurse and friend, Roslyn Rivera. I first met Roslyn in an ICU in Iraq, where she was showing the scar on her chest to an Iraqi child. It was obvious that the child got what she was saying: "I'm like you, and I'm here for you." So when Roslyn volunteered to share more about life with a heart defect, and how it has changed her life—and the lives of countless children—for the better, we said "Yes!"


I knew at the age of ten that I wanted to be a nurse when I grew up.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this life decision at such a young age would lead me to one day serve children all around the world.

My story begins the day I was born. I was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect, having two holes in my heart. I had two heart surgeries—at age three and ten. It was during that hospitalization at age ten that I decided I wanted to become a nurse. I noticed the faint scar on the chest of one of my nurses, and learned that she also had heart surgery. Hearing her story made me think how amazing it was that she had heart surgery and now she was my nurse!

While I've never let my heart condition hold me back in any way, it does influence how I live my life. My personal interest in all things heart-related led me to a nursing career in pediatric cardiac intensive care.

From a fellow nurse, I heard about an organization, the International Children's Heart Foundation (ICHF), that did medical mission trips to provide heart surgery to children in developing countries. After my first volunteer trip to the Dominican Republic, I knew I found my calling. Knowing the degree that congenital heart defects occur around the world, I consider myself extremely lucky to have been born in America.

To think, I may not have had the opportunity to receive adequate medical care had I been born elsewhere. This is why I travel to developing countries with medical teams providing heart surgery to children who would otherwise not receive care. I was that child in the hospital bed attached to wires and tubes, and now—as a nurse—I can truly relate to the children I care for. I remember my pacing wires being pulled out of my chest. I remember the expressions of worry and fear on my parents faces and the kind nurses who comforted them.

Roslyn smiling at the bedside of a patient.

Sometimes I share my heart story with my patients and their parents. If I don't speak the language, I simply show them my scar in an attempt to convey the message that my scar is proof I survived. Sharing my story calms their anxiety and gives them a hope that their child will grow up to be a healthy adult.

In December 2012, I had the opportunity to go to Iraq with ICHF. Joining together with Preemptive Love, we initiated pediatric cardiac care in Basra. Traveling to Iraq was a distressing idea to much of my family and friends, but I knew my nursing skills would help save the lives of Iraqi children.

This trip was truly eye-opening. I found myself immersed in a culture I knew little about and I didn't speak a word of Arabic, but I embraced all these differences.

Here in Iraq I learned that the expression of joy and gratitude on a mother's face as she sees her child given a new chance at life is undeniably universal, and this only increased my desire to continue to help mend the hearts of children across the globe.

About Matthew Willingham

Matt Willingham is Preemptive Love's Senior Field Editor and writes primarily on politics, history, general updates and visual peacemaking through photography and film.

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"My Heart Defect Doesn't Define Or Defeat Me, It Compels Me To Serve"
"My Heart Defect Doesn't Define Or Defeat Me, It Compels Me To Serve"
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