To family and friends, Christina Less is Mousie. That’s how she introduces herself; in fact, very few people know her real first name.
It’s a nickname she was given as a baby but not because she was a tiny, or even a quiet or timid, infant. Rather, it came from the fact that Christina had undergone three open-heart surgeries before age 3. Given that her arms were so weak from the many blood draws and injections she’d received, her medical team inserted intravenous lines into the veins in her head. Her shaved head gave her the appearance of a little mouse; hence, the nickname – Mousie.
“It’s been a term of endearment my whole life,” she says.
Mousie was born with tricuspid atresia, an extremely rare heart defect. Normally, blood flows from the body into the right atrium, then through the tricuspid valve to the right ventricle and on to the lungs. If the tricuspid valve is not working properly, the blood cannot reach the lungs to pick up oxygen.
“Growing up, I didn’t understand the complexity of it,” Mousie says. “But the doctors and my parents never put any limits on me, really. I was encouraged to do all the things other kids did.”
In third grade, Mousie was diagnosed with tachycardia, or a faster-than-normal heart rate. At age 15, she underwent the first of several ablation procedures, which involves destroying small areas of heart tissue where heart rhythm problems arise.
In summer 2011, Mousie felt her heart skipping beats. Doctors performed another ablation procedure to eliminate the cause of the problem. It went well, but the 25-year-old was told afterward that she would likely need open-heart surgery at some point to correct blood flow problems and other issues.
“I met with the surgeons and doctors about whether I should do the surgery right away or do it in five years,” Mousie says. “On the one hand, it was the ‘if it’s not broken, why fix it?’ argument. But there was also the ‘you’re healthy now, you can handle it better now’ argument. It was a difficult decision to make, and it was a lot of soul searching.”
Ultimately, she opted for “sooner” rather than “later.” In February 2012, University of Iowa Heart and Vascular surgeons successfully repaired Mousie’s heart and inserted a pacemaker.
“I’m so glad I did it. I’ve never felt better in my whole life,” Mousie says. “Three months after (the surgery), I did a 5K ‘Color Run.’ My goal is to do a half -marathon in February, which will be a year after the open heart surgery.”
Experiencing multiple issues related to congenital heart disease—not to mention numerous treatments, procedures, and surgeries—has framed Mousie’s outlook on life and sense of identity. “I always knew that I might die,” Mousie says. “I would go to bed at night and say, ‘I just want to wake up in the morning.’”
Yet she’s also convinced that her heart problems have “made me who I am. I’m a completely better person because of it. I’ve seen things and I’ve experienced the realization of this condition and of the thought of dying. I’ve taken it, and I think of it as a blessing.”
Mousie understands that she has exceeded her doctors’—and even her own—expectations. She believes it wouldn’t have been possible without the support of her family and friends. It’s something she wishes for all women with heart disease.
“I’ve been able to prove that I’m not going to die at this age or that age because of the positivity around my life,” she says. “I honestly believe with all my heart it is the positive vibes and positive thinking and the happiness that surrounds my life that gets me through."
“I would just want to tell everyone to be conscientious of whom you’re surrounding yourself with and be especially grateful for the people who are keeping you positive and who are keeping you inspired with life,” she adds. “When you have something like this, you have to embrace it, and take it for everything it’s worth—whether it’s going to teach yourself or teach somebody else how to live with it.”
University of Iowa Heart and Vascular Center is the proud Eastern Iowa sponsor of the American Heart Association.