In 2005, Shelby Givens was looking forward to a normal day in kindergarten when she suddenly found herself terrified and confused.
“I remember going to my grandmother’s and I felt weird. I couldn’t move my left side,” Shelby says of a memory that remains strong a decade later.
Shelby’s pediatrician immediately suspected a stroke and sent her to Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital in Nashville, where a neurologist and cardiologist met her and confirmed the diagnosis.
Fortunately, Shelby suffered no permanent brain damage and, through physical therapy, regained all the freedom of movement and play a child should enjoy.
But for Shelby and her family, the stroke was just the latest medical trial in what had been a lifetime of health scares.
A healthy, happy child suddenly isn’t
Shelby’s mother, Misty Givens, remembers her daughter first showing signs of serious illness at 18 months of age. Because of spiking white blood cell counts, doctors thought she might have leukemia. Tests came back negative, but the periodic symptoms remained a mystery for another year and a half.
At the age of three, a cardiologist set up some tests to see if perhaps Shelby had a heart murmur.
When the results were in, Misty was stunned. Shelby had a cleft in her mitral valve, which was causing the beginning stage of congestive heart failure. She would need to go on blood pressure medication and would likely need open heart surgery.
“In 2004, the day before her fifth birthday, we went for a checkup at Vanderbilt, and they determined there was no improvement — and in fact her condition was worsening,” Misty says, her voice breaking.
“That was probably one of the most heartbreaking experiences for me as a parent. You’re sitting there thinking, ‘Is there anything I could have done differently?’”
“On top of that, I have my 4-year-old daughter saying, ‘Mommy, I don’t want to go to heaven … not yet.’”
The surgery to repair the valve and several holes in Shelby’s heart went well, and she made a quick recovery and thrived. Misty and Danny Givens hoped the threats to their little girl’s health were past… until a year later when she suffered a stroke.
Shelby’s health turns a corner
Things would turn around for the smart, vivacious first child in the Givens household. Today Shelby Givens is a happy, healthy teenager. And she’s telling her inspiring story on behalf of the American Heart Association to raise awareness.
“I feel like I’m a lot more mature than most people my age because I had to go through things that most adults don’t even have to go through,” Shelby says. “And I had to do it when I was five and six, so I have a lot of confidence in myself.”
For Terran Anderson, regional director of the American Heart Association’s Chattanooga chapter, stories like Shelby’s are key to spreading awareness.
“Sharing stories like Shelby’s helps us show that heart disease and stroke affects everyone — regardless of gender, race, or age,” says Anderson. “It also helps us highlight the strides we’ve made in research and advocacy. When Shelby was born, there was no mandatory pulse oximetry testing for newborns. Now, all newborn children must have this simple, painless test. And as a result we’re catching heart defects much sooner.”
Despite her many trials during her first years of life, Shelby says she has emerged stronger for having the experience.
In May, Shelby told her story to hundreds of adults at the Heart Association’s Go Red For Women luncheon.
“Today my life has greater meaning and I have a mission: I want to start a revolution — a generation of women and girls who understand their hearts and minds,” she said.
“Join me in the fight. We just might save our own lives.”
The Heart Association commissioned a video to share Shelby’s story at the Go Red luncheon.