Amy Bredeson

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Ryan Walls, 13, of Bluffton

Just 45 minutes after birth, Ryan Elizabeth Walls underwent the implantation of a pacemaker.

The baby was born six weeks early, weighing only 3.5 pounds. She had been diagnosed in utero with a third-degree congenital heart block, a life-threatening condition that slows the heartbeat.

Because she was so small, Ryan had a temporary external pacemaker implanted at birth and had to have an internal one implanted eight weeks later.

"One in 125 babies is born with congenital heart disease, most of which goes undetected," Ryan's mother, Meredith Walls said. "You cannot put an age or face on heart disease. The young are targets just as frequently and silently as the old."

Despite needing an emergency surgery to implant an adult pacemaker in September 2016, the Bluffton girl, now 13 years old, is thriving. A seventh-grader at River Ridge Academy, Ryan is excelling academically - in fact, she was inducted into the National Junior Honor Society in April 2017.

She is learning to play the drums and rehearsing with the Bluffton Youth Theater for the upcoming production of Mary Poppins Jr.

Ryan's mother is hopeful that in the near future, all hospitals will require infants to be evaluated for CHD with a simple pulse oximetry test prior to being discharged from the hospital. That way, if there is an abnormality and further tests are needed, the issue can be caught and treated as early as possible.

Over the past 13 years, the Walls family has met many families dealing with severe cases of CHD at children's hospitals up and down the East Coast. Many of the children have to live in a hospital, undergoing multiple surgeries or waiting for heart transplants.

That puts things in perspective for Meredith, who said Ryan is blessed to be able to live at home, go to school and play sports.

"My humble advice to other parents of children diagnosed with CHD is to try to keep things in perspective," Meredith said. "Be the best advocate you can for your child, find something to laugh about each day, preferably with your child, and enjoy the healthy moments as much as possible."

Amy Coyne Bredeson of Bluffton is a freelance writer, a mother of two and a volunteer with the Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance.

The American Heart Association's 2018 Palmetto Heart Walk and 5K Race is planned for April 28 at Shelter Cove Community Park on Hilton Head Island. Lowcountry children and family members affected by congenital heart disease are invited to walk with Ryan's team, the Young Heart Warriors. Register or donate at heart.org/goto/YoungHeartWarriors2018.

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