ambassadorAfter surviving cancer in her teens, Susan Strong spent her life thinking she’d be lucky to reach 50. On the eve of that milestone and eight months after a heart valve procedure, she has a new attitude.

“This past year has been about making meaning out of this life I’ve been given,” she said. “So many people helped and encouraged me through these times, and I want to pay it forward, hopefully make a difference for others.”

Susan joins seven others as the newly established American Heart Association Patient Ambassadors team. This group will offer help and support by sharing their personal experiences and information with the millions of Americans impacted by heart disease and stroke. They all met for the first time this week in Dallas.

ambassador1-800pxThe ambassador program is financially supported by The Edwards Lifesciences Foundation. The Heart Valve Ambassadors include:

  • Robert Epps, 54, of Norfolk, Virginia., who has undergone open-heart surgery to replace his aortic valve with a mechanical heart valve.
  • Anthony DiLemme, 32, of Los Angeles, who was diagnosed with bicuspid aortic valve as a child, and faced two valve replacement surgeries in the past two years.
  • Dennis Dobkowski, 68, whose aortic valve was replaced in January 2015, and his wife Ann, a former nurse who serves as Dennis’ caregiver and main support system. The couple live in Orange County, California.
  • Kimberly Goodloe, 48, of Atlanta, Georgia a mom of two who received a mechanical valve replacement in 2009.
  • Jen Hyde, 30, of Brooklyn, New York, was born with a congenital heart defect called Tetralogy Of Fallot and had her first surgery at age 3, and at 25 received a perimount bovine valve replacement.
  • Bernie Oakes, 85, of Traverse City, Michigan, who battled high blood pressure and other heart issues until March 2014 when he underwent a minimally invasive surgical procedure called transcatheter aortic valve (TAVR) replacement, which repairs the valve without open heart surgery.
  • Susan Strong, 49, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, who underwent TAVR for the severe aortic stenosis caused by radiation therapy to treat her Hodgkin’s lymphoma when she was 17.

ambassador2-800px“At my age I could be sitting around in my rocker, but I’ve got no reason to quit,” Bernie Oakes said. “I have a good quality of life, feeling like I did 20 years ago, and I’m having too much fun.”

Future ambassador teams will be formed for other conditions such as heart failure.

Photos by Travis Cobb