Henry Kuhlke's mother says her son is one tough kid.
The 2-year-old Augusta resident endured three open-heart surgeries, including an aortic valve replacement, during his first nine months.
Now, the bubbly tyke with curly blond locks is the poster child for the 2007 Augusta Heart Walk, which benefits the American Heart Association.
As the Augusta chapter's Heart Hero, Henry's smiling face appears on billboards, print ads and posters throughout the area.
"We want to do whatever we can to inform people about heart disease and what they can do to help," said his mother, Laura Kuhlke, a part-time second-grade teacher at Cedar Ridge Elementary School in Grovetown.
"People think it's an older man's disease, but it happens to women and children," she said. According to the American Heart Association, thousands of newborns each year have heart defects.
Henry seemed normal at birth, but three days later the family had to rush him to the hospital after he turned purple.
Doctors diagnosed Henry with an interrupted aortic arch and ventricular septum defect, commonly known as a hole in the heart.
Between 4 and 10 percent of newborns have some degree of ventricular septum defect, according to the heart association.
Henry had a first surgery just 10 days after he was born. In July 2005, a growth of tissue in his heart forced a second surgery to clear the passage of blood through his aorta.
During recovery, Henry's aortic valve failed, and doctors at the Medical College of Georgia Children's Medical Center replaced it with a mechanical valve. Kuhlke said doctors told her to prepare for the worst.
"We felt we knew the prayers were working, and doing something like that was giving in." she said.
They didn't give in, though.
"For the most part, we try not to treat him any differently than any 2-year-old," his mother said, although doctors ruled sports such as lacrosse and football out of Henry's future because of his condition.
Henry's mother said the family is honored to help the Heart Walk, and see it as a way to raise awareness and thank the many doctors, nurses and staffers who treated Henry.
The Heart Walk will begin at 9 a.m. Oct. 13 at Augusta State University. It will include a noncompetitive 5K run/walk.
To volunteer or participate in the event, contact the Augusta chapter of the American Heart Association at (706) 855-5005, or visit www.augustaheart walk.kintera.org.
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