GREENSBORO, N.C. — A Greensboro non-profit is pumping love, passion and purpose into a heartfelt mission -- raising thousands of dollars to research and advance treatments for children with Congenital Heart Defects (CHDs).
Four-year-old Elizabeth, from King, has a bright smile and big personality, often masking what does not run skin-deep -- her broken heart.
"You go through a range of emotions," said her guardian mom, Shelly Greenwood.
Elizabeth's battle with a CHD started in infancy.
"The first year and a half was very difficult. She was in and out of the hospital a lot. We spent roughly a total of eight months in the hospital," Greenwood recalled.
At Duke University Hospital, Elizabeth began her harrowing heart journey to fix a faulty right ventricle and missing valve (Tricuspid Atresia, Hypoplastic Right Ventricle, Ventricular Septal Defect and Atrial Septal Defect).
"Normally, the heart is developed where you have two pumping chambers. One pumps to the lungs, and the other pumps to the rest of the body, and when you have only one single pumping chamber, then we go through multiple surgeries," explained Duke University pediatric cardiologist Reid Chamberlain, MD.
Chamberlain said he sees CHD cases like Elizabeth's nearly every day, with the diagnosis affecting approximately one in 100 babies (totaling 40,000) in the U.S. every year, per the Children's Heart Foundation.
"There's a really good chance someone in your child's elementary school or even in their class has had to go through multiple surgeries or has a procedure upcoming," he explained.
Yet, he acknowledged CHD's prevalence does not prioritize the quest for a cure.
"If you look at what research gets funded, in general pediatrics is much less-funded than adults. Even within pediatrics, even through the CHD space or realm is very common in a large percentage of the population, the amount of funding we get is much lower," Chamberlain explained.
The disparity is why Chamberlain jumped at the offer of a CHD fellowship (specialist training), funded by the Greensboro non-profit Hands for Hearts.
Hands for Hearts
"Through our fellowship, we're able to have Duke Children's Hospital do a specialty training year for their best and brightest doctors, and part of that fellow's responsibility is to work out of the Greensboro clinic in the Triad," said Hands for Hearts co-founder Skotty Wannamaker.
Wannamaker and friends Jeff Fusaiotti and Kathleen Little co-founded Hands for Hearts in 2014, in honor of their pal, Matt Sullivan, who died in January 2014. In considering a way to honor him, they thought of Sullivan's beloved nephew, Nicholas, who has a CHD.
"He (Sullivan) loved people, he loved laughing..." recalled Wannamaker's wife, Cameron Wannamaker, who spearheads Hands for Hearts' annual fundraising gala -- 'Casino Night.'
The last two years, the COVID pandemic forced the cancelation of the annual event, which set a record of raising more than $200,000 in 2020 -- just two months before nationwide COVID stay-home orders.
"There's a clamor in the community for us to come back, and it has been the wind in our sails to come to the finish line," Skotty Wannamaker said.
That finish line is this February, fittingly Heart Month, when the organization once again will deal out cards to heal children's hearts.
"Use it as a time to gather and celebrate and raise much-needed funds and awareness for something so important that impacts families right here in our community," Cameron Wannamaker said.
With a name that befits the title, Elizabeth is this year's "Queen of Hearts." Joining her as King of Hearts is a fellow CHD warrior -- 10-year-old Garrison from Greensboro. Garrison also has had to undergo multiple surgeries to repair his narrow arch (Coarctation of the Aorta). Through his difficult medical journey, he has given back to organizations like Hands for Hearts through annual fundraisers at his school.
WFMY News 2's Meghann Mollerus is honored to help emcee this year's Casino Night. The organization's fundraising goal is $300,000, so it can create another CHD fellowship at Duke University's Greensboro clinic, as well as support a Camp Victory Junction experience for local children with CHDs.
"Every dollar we raise is already spent. We're pledging to do so many things in our community," Skotty Wannamaker said.
Each ticket includes food, drinks and casino chips. In addition to the games, the evening will include a special presentation about the organization, silent and live auctions and an after party with a live band.