Ya Gotta Have Heart! School event in La Jolla inspired by young open-heart surgery survivor

By Ashley Mackin

Students at Bird Rock Elementary School will perform some blood-pumping activities this month to show their love and support for the American Heart Association (AHA).

At the Jump Rope for Heart event Wednesday, Feb. 19, the children will participate in a day of jumping rope, shooting hoops and hula hooping, but from now until the big day, they will also be collecting money for the nonprofit, which researches heart disease, heart defects and other heart issues.

“The event is designed specifically for kids to teach them about heart disease prevention, but it’s also an energetic, heart-pumping event where they’ll be active and get exercise and have fun doing it,” said AHA Youth Director Jennie Brane.

She pointed out that one in three American children is obese and the AHA is working to combat the situation because 80 percent of obese children are not expected to get out of that category.

“It’s important we teach them to take care of their hearts early on, so they have those tools to set healthy patterns now to keep their hearts healthy throughout their lives,” she said. Brane also noted that 20 percent of people with heart disease were born with it. One example is Evan Rodriguez, a Kindergarten student at Bird Rock Elementary School, who needed open-heart surgery at age 4 to fix a heart defect.

“When Evan was 18 months old, he had a heart murmur, which most babies and toddlers do. But in Evan’s case, he just wasn’t growing out of it,” said his mother, Aimee Rodriguez. “The doctor said he had a sub aortic stenosis in his aorta. It’s like a skin tag on the inside of the heart. We were shocked and reluctant to go forward with open-heart surgery, but when Evan was 4, it was growing and causing his aortic valve to leak.”

So he underwent surgery in September 2012 and is doing ”fantastic” today, according to his mother, “Evan is your typical kindergartener, with lots of energy. We are so blessed.”

Through the experience, Aimee and her husband, Vicente Rodriguez, developed a fundamental appreciation for the research conducted by AHA. Though they already supported the AHA, they became more involved with the organization and discovered the Jump Rope for Heart event. “We were thrilled to bring it to his school,” Aimee Rodriguez said, adding that the staff has been incredibly supportive; especially Principal Sally Viavada and PE Coach Scott DeMint. “I could not be more appreciative of their help and their involvement.”

At a school assembly Jan. 29, Rodriguez spoke about her son’s medical journey with his classmates as a kick-off to the fundraising portion of the event. She said students could bring in loose change — and any donations they might come across — to their classrooms, which will go into a shoebox and presented to the AHA at the Jump Rope for Heart event.

Those interested may also drop off or mail a donation to Bird Rock Elementary School, Attention: Aimee Rodriguez/Jump Rope for Heart, 5371 La Jolla Hermosa Ave. La Jolla, CA 92037. The last day to donate is Feb. 19 and for every $1,500 raised, the school will receive a $100 gift card for new PE equipment.