By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

Cristina CivettaCristina Civetta was born with a fragile, failing heart. At only 18 hours old, she underwent surgery so that doctors could place a shunt into her heart to improve blood flow.

When she was 19 months old, her lung and heart chambers were filling with fluid. She was rushed from Mount Sinai Hospital in New York to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, for emergency open-heart surgery.

“It saved my life,” Civetta said. “But they knew it wouldn’t hold forever.”

To correct a defect known as tetralogy of Fallot, doctors performed yet another operation, this time going in through her side. Then, as a teenager, Civetta began to experience chest pains and severely reduced oxygen levels in her blood.

More monitoring and multiple procedures were needed, including cardiac catheterization and stent implants into her early 20s.  But it was clear to doctors that another major surgery would be in Civetta’s future.

“They all knew I needed heart valve replacement,” she said.

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Dizzy spells afflicted Cristina by the time she was 25. She even passed out a few times – once in Miami at a concert and once in Paris, where she was attending a friend’s wedding.

“I literally passed out in the middle of the street,” she said. “Basically, they discovered that my heart was just stopping.”

Doctors implanted a pacemaker in 2012. A few months later, Civetta was in 95 percent heart failure, and it was time for her long-anticipated heart valve surgery.

On Oct. 17, 2013, she received not just one new heart valve, but two. The nine-hour procedure was a success.

Now 31, Civetta finally has normal blood flow in her heart, and a heart chamber that previously was too large has returned to an optimum size. Her doctors are “super happy about that,” she said.

“Everything is working,” Civetta said joyfully. “It’s very awesome. You feel really blessed. You feel like you’re really reborn when that happens.”

Civetta scar

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Today, Civetta goes about her regular activities in New York, where she grew up, and works at Chelsea Hotels where she is the director of cultural planning and strategic partnerships.

Mindful of the scientific advances that helped her, she assists the American Heart Association by sharing her story and helping to raise money for the kind of medical research that saved her life and so many others.

“Through research, we can find new and better ways to treat conditions like mine and be more proactive about prevention,” Civetta said.

The American Heart Association funds more cardiovascular research than any organization outside the federal government, having invested in excess of $3.7 billion, including more than $100 million annually since 1996. The organization has funded research by 13 Nobel Prize winners and has been part of many lifesaving advancements such as the first artificial heart valve, cholesterol-inhibiting drugs, heart transplantation, and CPR techniques and guidelines.

Last year, Civetta was honored as the Junior Heart Hero at the 18th Annual Hamptons Heart Ball. This year, she’s participating as junior chair for the June 13 gala.

Civetta knows how prevalent heart disease is. For example, her boyfriend’s father has a pacemaker and has had two heart surgeries. She notes that for a number of years, few people who knew her realized she was battling heart disease. These days, she’s speaking out.

Even though heart disease is the leading killer in America, more research and everyday life changes can help defeat it, she said.

“Through education and getting tested we can prevent it,” Civetta said, adding, “We can start doing stuff at home in our own lives.”

One important step is healthy eating. Civetta prepares meals at home using recipes from an American Heart Association cookbook, part of her ongoing mission to stay healthy and guide others to do the same.

“People need to know about this. I want to spread awareness,” she said. “Let’s face it — living is cool.”

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Photos courtesy of Cristina Civetta

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Send an email to stories@heart.org that’s as brief or as detailed as you’d like.

Previous “Stories from the Heart” include:

After swapping cigarettes for junk food, Minnesota woman’s new habit is being heart-healthy

Mom’s heart attack made AHA mission personal for staffer

When assistant principal collapsed, CPR instructor stepped up