By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

0513-Feature-Heart of gold_Blog

Caroline Hickam is pouring her heart into attaining the Gold Award, the highest achievement in Girl Scouts.

Born with a heart defect that required surgery when she was just a few weeks old, the Maryland high school junior is focusing her Gold Award project on heightening awareness of cardiovascular diseases. Caroline, 16, is already off to a good start: She recently put on a fundraiser that raised enough money to buy most of the 10 CPR kits her school district needs under a new state law requiring CPR training in high school.

“I really want to inspire others in my community to have a passion for this cause,” said Caroline, who lives in the northeastern Maryland town of Bel Air. “I just don’t see how people cannot realize how important this is.”

Caroline was born with Tetralogy of Fallot, a condition caused by a combination of four related heart defects, including holes in the heart chamber. Open-heart surgery as an infant corrected many of the defects, but she still will require another surgery to replace a missing pulmonary valve. She will then have to replace that valve with additional surgeries every 10 to 15 years.

Caroline has raised awareness since her early childhood because she wants more people to understand that heart disease can strike anyone.

“There are some types of heart disease you can control, but then there are people like me,” she said. “I did not do anything to cause myself to have this problem.”

Caroline said she feels fortunate to live a normal life. Although she sees cardiologists regularly, she doesn’t take medications or require constant monitoring. While she does get breathless easily, it didn’t stop her from playing soccer for six years, or participating on a competitive jump rope team. She currently plays on volleyball teams for her high school and a community club.

Caroline also is a musician. She has played the flute for more than a decade, but also plays the piccolo, clarinet, alto saxophone, percussion, piano and ukulele.

Her fundraiser in February was “a perfect combination” of her love of music and her passion for her cause. She recruited her school’s music honor society, along with family members, including her second cousin who makes up half of a percussionist-comedy duo, for a night of music and awareness called “Follow Your Art.”

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The event raised $5,000 for the CPR kits, which will be used under a new state law requiring ninth-graders must pass take a class on CPR and be trained on how to use an automatic external defibrillator before they graduate. Maryland is one of 21 states with such a law, which the American Heart Association and other organizations have lobbied for as a way to teach more people this lifesaving skill.

Caroline’s fundraiser raised enough to buy seven of the 10 kits needed to put one at each high school. A grant through the Ross retail chain, working with the AHA, helped purchase an eighth kit.

Thanks to Caroline, the schools needed to buy just two kits, said Ginny Popiolek, supervisor of Harford County Public School’s health education program.

“I just think this is an example of one person making an incredible difference, and this one person is a student,” Popiolek said. “Whenever that happens, we all need to take pause and recognize it, because that’s an indication of the future of our community.”

To earn a Gold Award, the Girl Scout equivalent to attaining an Eagle rank in Boy Scouts, a project must have a lasting impact.

Caroline, likewise, aims to have a lasting impact in the fight against cardiovascular diseases. In fact, she dreams of one day working for the AHA.

“I feel so much passion for this. I want others to feel the same way, and not a select few. I want everyone to be this passionate,” she said. “I want it to be as many people who wear pink for breast cancer in October, that number of people. I want heart disease stuff everywhere.”

Photos courtesy of Beth Hickam