By: Christopher Smith

Background on heart condition

I was born with what is known as a Critical Congenital Heart Disease (CCHD) The CDC defines a CCHD as a heart condition which will require surgery within the first year of life. Throughout my life, I have had my pulmonary heart valve replaced multiple times and I had a pacemaker implanted in my chest since I was three weeks old. My actual diagnosis is known as transposition of the great arteries, atrial septal defect, ventricular septal defect, complete heart block, congestive heart failure and dextrocardia. 

Growing up with a Critical Congenital Heart Condition a lot of adults in my life would tell me what I could and could not do as a way to help promote my own safety. Because of this, I limited the amount of risks that I took throughout my childhood. I was afraid to travel too far from home, I wouldn’t play on the jungle gym, and I would never let anyone see my scars.  

GAP as it relates to my heart condition

When I heard that Global Autism Project was in need of individuals in the field of Behavior Analysis to travel to various places all over the world, I felt like I needed to apply ASAP. After the initial excitement I thought “how can I travel to another country when I have a Critical Congenital Heart Condition?”

The idea of traveling to another country terrified me, mostly because of all the unknowns. While I was introduced to the idea of Global Autism Project back in the Summer of 2015, it took me a long period of time until I actually felt comfortable to apply for a trip myself. I felt like I needed to push myself out of my comfort zone, as I had spent most of my life being comfortable. To combat this fear, I made a list of questions specific to my heart condition and researched those questions myself. I also spoke to friends who I knew that had similar medical conditions who have traveled abroad before. They helped to put my mind at ease with lots of great advice. One friend recommended that I buy an Alivecor Heart Monitor so that I could monitor myself closely and I think that was the best piece of advice I received. Most importantly, though, I reminded myself I cannot grow if I am always comfortable. 

How I dealt with it

One of the best parts of having an intense medical condition is that I feel like I have become more intune with myself and my body than the average person. Throughout my life I have learned to advocate for myself when I do experience symptoms related to my heart condition. In order to be able to advocate for myself, I needed to learn what was a true symptom of my heart condition was. During this trip we had the chance to visit one of the Dominican Republic’s most beautiful Parks, Tres Ojos. During this trip, we had to walk up a lot of stairs. I took my time walking up the stairs and reminded myself that everyone was here to appreciate the beauty of the park and no one was in a rush. I walked up the stairs slowly, took deep breaths, and appreciated the beauty of the park, It was a great moment of success for myself once I reached the top of the stairs, albeit I was a little out of breath.

What I learned

I have learned to be proud of my heart condition, rather than ashamed of it. My heart condition makes me unique. But most importantly I am lucky enough to learn life lessons that others have not had the opportunity to learn, simply because they have not been exposed to the same barriers as me. I appreciate the little pleasures in life, I try my best to stay present for special moments, and I do my best to never take a day for granted.  

A couple of people posing for a photo

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