Hannah and Hadley Marsh

Hannah Marsh has a unique way of introducing herself to her students: she claims she’s part cyborg. While her students ponder the truth of her statement, she presents slides showcasing the pacemaker that regulates her heart’s rhythm.

February marks Heart Month, a time dedicated not only to Valentine’s Day but also honoring those with Congenital Heart Defects (CHD). CHD Awareness Week is Feb. 7-14. “We celebrate during that week and then we go on about all the things of life,” Hannah said.

Before she was born, her mom and dad learned she had a slow heartbeat. Doctors knew something was wrong, but they didn’t know her exact condition until she was born. She was diagnosed with left ventricular noncompaction and sinus node dysfunction.

Basically, that means her left ventricular muscle quivers rather than squeezes so it has a hard time keeping up with the right ventricle.

That’s where the “cyborg” piece enters for Hannah, who teaches history at Carroll County High School.

As a result of her condition, her heart rate is slower and she had a pacemaker inserted at age 9 to keep her heart in sync. She still has that piece of machinery today and will get a new one installed over the summer.

Hannah was fortunate her CHD didn’t require surgical procedures until she was 7 years old. She had her first heart catheterization at 7 and a pacemaker two years later. She had a normal childhood, but said it was still hard to not be able to run and play during recess or keep up with other kids who were playing.

“Being a small child and having to explain to your friends was very hard,” she recalled.

It got a little tougher for her when she became a teenager. She started having episodes that caused her to pass out at school. Medical personnel didn’t believe her and thought she was a dramatic teenage girl seeking attention.

Her mom believed her, though, and she got cardiologists to give Hannah a stress test. “The doctor caught me when I passed out and fell off the treadmill,” she said. She was diagnosed with adrenaline induced arrhythmia, a condition that makes her blood pressure drop and she would pass out.

Teenage girls were a little harsh at times, but Hannah said she has lived a very happy and fulfilling life. She was a dancer and a cheerleader, but wasn’t allowed to participate in any contact sports or running.

One piece she wasn’t sure she would ever enjoy was pregnancy and motherhood. Doctors told her they weren’t sure if her heart was strong enough to handle the stress. But, she went through years of no cardiac incidents, so she and her husband, Harrison, decided to have a baby.

Hadley, who is almost 1 year old, was diagnosed with the same heart condition as her mom when she was 17 weeks in utero. Ironically, that’s the exact same uterine age Hannah was when her parents learned she had cardiac problems.

Hannah went through a lot to have her sweet baby girl, but she will be the last baby she will carry. “I had three different doctors say we don't recommend this again,” she said, noting those recommendations were made during a two-week hospital stay after she was put on complete bed rest in an effort to keep Hadley from being born too early.

Hadley was born about six weeks early and spent 33 days in the neonatal intensive care unit. She was just a few months old when she had her first cardiac procedure. It helped dramatically, but it’s likely she will need future interventions with her heart.

“There was a lot of mom guilt because this is a genetic condition and I gave it to her, but I can see she will have a full life,” Hannah said. She noted that more and more CHD patients are growing into adulthood, having families and living lives that many didn’t think were possible.

“It’s amazing to see how we’ve progressed,” she said. As a child, she was part of a group called God’s Special Little Hearts and she still keeps in touch with some of the other people who have congenital heart defects.

Her advice to everyone, including her high school students, is to take care of yourself and the one body you have. “You can do all the things you want, but you have to take care of yourself,” she said, reminding people to be kind to everyone because you may not always see the battles they are facing.

Hannah is involved with the Kentucky Heart Association and aims to raise awareness of CHD by sharing her and Hadley’s story as a testament to the possibilities of those living with congenital heart conditions.