Nurse Coordinator at Stanford’s Adult Congenital Heart Program Has the Same Disease as Those She Cares For
* Christy Sillman, RN, brings extraordinary personal experience to her work
STANFORD, Calif.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--“Once you cut through the heart it’s never the same. It always needs to be cared for.”
“Being told you’re cured and finding out that’s not really true? That should never happen.”
That statement from Christy Sillman, RN, 34, is born of experience. A very personal experience. That’s because Sillman was born with congenital heart disease at a time when these patients weren’t expected to live to adulthood.
Now, as one of the many adult survivors needing lifelong, specialized treatment for her heart, Sillman brings special insights to her work as the nurse coordinator for the Adult Congenital Heart Program at Stanford.
“My patients tell me that they love talking to Christy because not only is she an exceptional nurse, but she gets it,” said George Lui, MD, medical director of the program and clinical assistant professor of cardiovascular medicine and pediatric cardiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. “They’re excited to speak with someone who has been through it firsthand. Not many programs have this kind of asset.”
The Adult Congenital Heart Program at Stanford, a Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford and Stanford Health Care collaboration, brings together the expertise of pediatric and adult cardiology. “Ninety percent of children born with congenital heart disease are surviving into adulthood,” Lui said. “Advances in medical and surgical care have created a large population of adult survivors.”
That population now numbers more than one million people in the U.S., according to the Adult Congenital Heart Association.
Sillman’s story began when she was born in 1980 with tetralogy of Fallot with pulmonary atresia. It’s a life-threatening condition that includes several defects of the heart, including the absence of the vessel that carries blood from the heart to the lungs. Doctors told her parents she would likely survive for only three days. Luckily, a trial drug helped keep her alive long enough to have a shunt placed, which allowed blood to flow to the lungs.
After many more treatments and surgeries throughout childhood, she finally seemed to be in the clear. But things are not always that straightforward for those born with congenital heart disease.
At age 17, Sillman was told by her doctors that a heart valve was leaky and needed to be replaced. The surgery was successful, but Sillman experienced vocal cord paralysis, thwarting her dreams of studying acting. “I started to think of a career in health education,” Sillman said. “I liked the idea of helping patients like myself.”
A year later, Sillman’s pediatric cardiologist told her she was cured, and would never need to see a cardiologist again. “He told me to have a nice life,” Sillman recalled.
Sillman did just that. She stopped seeing a cardiologist for the next 10 years, became a health educator, went to nursing school, got married in 2006 and decided to have a child.
Although supposedly “cured” of heart disease, Sillman unexpectedly developed arrhythmias during her second trimester. Doctors stabilized her and she delivered a healthy baby boy, but two months after giving birth, she was having difficulty making it up the stairs. “My doctor told me that I was just nervous.”
She found an adult congenital heart disease cardiologist who discovered she was suffering from cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle. Sillman was going into heart failure. It turned out that she wasn’t cured – but thankfully, medication and exercise were successful treatments.
“At that point, my frustration with the medical care of people with congenital heart defects was elevated,” Sillman recalled. “I wouldn’t have been in such bad shape had I gotten the right care earlier. This motivated me to get more involved.”
That involvement was huge. Sillman talked with many people who shared similar stories, which inspired her to become an advocate, from blogging to Capitol Hill and more. When a position was available as with the program at Stanford in 2013, Sillman jumped at the chance and was hired.
“I don’t want any teenager to go through what I went through,” said Sillman. “Being told you’re cured and finding out that’s not really true? That should never happen.”
But it does. Susan Fernandes, the program’s director, said it’s estimated that more than 50 percent of adults with congenital heart disease are not receiving specialized care, and are often lost to follow-up care beginning in early adolescence.
“It’s important to know that we don’t cure congenital heart disease,” said Lui, “Instead, we provide lifelong care that patients like Christy need.”
Sillman certainly appreciates that care, and the ability to pay it forward through her work and experience. “I really like bringing a patient’s perspective to what I do,” Sillman said. “There’s nothing better than getting up in the morning and knowing that your job perfectly fits your passions.”
About Stanford Children’s Health and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford
Stanford Children’s Health, with Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford at its core, is an internationally recognized leader in world-class, nurturing care and extraordinary outcomes in every pediatric and obstetric specialty from the routine to rare, for every child and pregnant woman. Together with our Stanford Medicine physicians, nurses, and staff, we deliver this innovative care and research through partnerships, collaborations, outreach, specialty clinics and primary care practices at more than 100 locations in the U.S. western region. As a non-profit, we are committed to supporting our community – from caring for uninsured or underinsured kids, homeless teens and pregnant moms, to helping re-establish school nurse positions in local schools. Learn more about our full range of preeminent programs and network of care at stanfordchildrens.org, and on our Healthier, Happy Lives blog. Join us on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube.
Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford is the heart of Stanford Children’s Health, and is one of the nation’s top hospitals for the care of children and expectant mothers. For a decade, we have received the highest specialty rankings of any Northern California children’s hospital, according to U.S. News & World Report’s 2014-15 Best Children’s Hospitals survey, and are the only hospital in Northern California to receive the national 2013 Leapfrog Group Top Children’s Hospital award for quality and patient care safety. Discover more at stanfordchildrens.org.
About Stanford Health Care
Stanford Health Care (SHC) seeks to heal humanity through science and compassion one patient at a time, through its commitment to care, educate, and discover. Across its health system of inpatient care, outpatient health centers, medical groups, health plan offerings, care navigation and virtual care services, Stanford Health Care provides patients with the very best in health and care through its unique leading edge and coordinated care approach.
Stanford Health Care is widely recognized for delivering the highest levels of care and compassion, while also discovering breakthroughs for treating cancer, heart disease, brain disorders, primary care issues, and many other conditions. Stanford Health Care and its Stanford Hospital, along with Stanford Children’s Health and the Stanford University School of Medicine, are committed to delivering Stanford Medicine excellence to each and every patient and family served. For more information, visit: www.stanfordhealthcare.org.