Finding Strength Through Adversity: The 2023 Rock Your Scar Contest Winners

Scars. They tell a story. They represent triumph over adversity. And for those living with congenital heart disease (CHD), scars — physical or not — are symbols of strength and empowerment.

That’s the idea behind the Mended Little Hearts Rock Your Scar® (RYS) photo contest. Each year, Mended Little Hearts® invites heart heroes of all ages to submit photos that creatively show how they embrace their CHD and “rock their scar.”

What began in 2014 has grown into one of The Mended Hearts, Inc.’s most popular and high-profile CHD awareness campaigns. It not only educates others about CHD, but it’s also become an influential tool for showing the power and beauty of brave children and adults living with CHD.

This year’s RYS contest attracted 667 total entries (up from 594 entries last year) and was viewed online 377,690 times (up from 205,589 views last year). Throughout the one-month contest, 143,619 votes were cast.

Look into the eyes of these winners and you’ll see beauty, joy, happiness, strength, courage and fierceness. Read their stories, and you’ll be captivated by their bravery.

Winner Ages 0-1

Maverick Carter

Fort Worth, Texas

Forty-eight hours after Maverick Ace Carter was born, doctors performed an open-heart surgery to repair his transposition of the great arteries (TGA). For 22 days, moms Pamela Carter and her wife Bethany were in the NICU anticipating what was next and dreaming of when they could take their newborn home.

Now 8 months old, Maverick is doing great. “Since leaving the NICU, he has continued to grow perfectly and hit milestones,” Carter says. “His cardiologist said if a doctor was looking at his heart, they wouldn’t be able to tell it was repaired.”
Since the Carters were unable to do the typical newborn photos due to being in the NICU, the photographer came to their home to create this creative conceptual image. “She wanted to do a picture of all of the needles we used doing IVF, so I saved most of them,” Carter says. “We had two losses before Maverick, so the journey was long and hard. Since Maverick’s start in life was challenging, we decided to put the lion’s mane cap on his head surrounded by the IVF needles to reflect the courage it took for all three of us to get to where we were that day.”

The Carters submitted Maverick’s photo to show there is hope and that other CHD parents aren’t alone. “Heart warriors are courageous and strong, and they go to battle to survive,” she says. “I want to show other parents that you can still have the life you dreamed of with your heart warrior.”

Winner Ages 2-4

Elizabeth Greenwood

King, North Carolina

Every year, Shelly Greenwood has professional photos taken of her daughter Elizabeth. “When it came time for her 4-year-old pictures to be taken, she was still healing from surgery in January 2022,” Greenwood says. “I wanted to capture her scar so she will be able to look back and see the beauty on her chest.”

Elizabeth was born with hypo- plastic right heart syndrome and tricuspid atresia, and she spent the majority of the first 18 months of her life at Duke University Hospital in Durham, North Carolina.

At 3 months old, she had a pulmonary artery banding surgery, followed by two open-heart surgeries: the Glenn Procedure at 6 months old and a fenestrated Fontan at 3.5 years old.

Since then, she has started preschool and, like many kids, she’s had some sick- ness from being around other children. But she’s only had one major hospitalization since her most recent surgery in January 2022.

“I hope that Elizabeth is an inspiration to others,” says Greenwood. “And I always want her to be proud of her scars. She has fought to live, and I want her to know that her scars are beautiful.”

Winner Ages 5-8

Dawn Logan

Murfreesboro, Tennessee

At Faithe Logan’s 20-week ultrasound appointment, it was confirmed that she was pregnant with a little girl. But there was more. The baby had Down syndrome and her heart wasn’t complete.

Dawn Isabella Willow Logan was born three weeks early because she was in heart failure. Two months later during her first heart surgery, doctors found an Ebstein’s Anomaly, two ventricular septal defects, an atrial septal defect and a patent ductus arteriosus that didn’t close. Sixteen hours after that surgery, Dawn’s heart took a turn for the worse.

“She went back to the operating room for her ‘miracle’ surgery,” Logan says. “After several options that all failed, her surgeon tried something never done before and was able to create an origami valve replacement on the fly that sustained her for another two years.”

Since then, Dawn had a third open- heart surgery to replace her tricuspid valve. While another valve replacement may be on the horizon, Logan says Dawn is “happy, strong, growing and living!”

Dawn’s winning photo is a part of a series by Suha Dabit and World of Broken Hearts in partnership with the Brett Boyer foundation to raise funding for CHD research. While the Logans are advocates for CHD awareness, they’re also passionate about creating awareness and acceptance of all those with differences.

“We want to show that even with her differing abilities and her scars, Dawn is just as valuable as everyone else,” Logan says. “Even when there is no other possible surgical solution to a CHD problem, transplant is not always an option. In many states, individuals with disabilities are still denied transplants simply based on having a disability. The National Down Syndrome Society works tirelessly with legislators and state organizations to rally for an end to discrimination in transplantation. We hope that all would want to end this practice and stand behind the passing of state laws to prevent this type of discrimination.”

Winner Ages 9-12

Cam Betz

Uniontown, Ohio

Cam Betz was born with hypoplastic right heart syndrome, which required three heart surgeries by the time he
was 4.5 years old. Kristin Betz says her son’s journey has been pretty smooth and, since the final procedure, he’s been a super active kid who hangs out with friends, rides his bike and plays football.

“Our family plays in a flag football tournament in memory of heart warrior Sophia Capo who passed away from a CHD weeks after her birth,” Betz says. “Our son is honored during these games as a heart hero, and we wanted to come up with a cool picture for his heart hero sign this year. Cam was also granted permission to play tackle football this year, which was a dream come true for him. What better way to rock that scar than by showing your muscles and telling CHD you won with your warrior face and pads on.”

While Cam is now doing well, Betz says that in the beginning of their journey, she worried a lot about his future. “We have learned to live in the moment,” she says. “Take it day by day and celebrate every victory. Not every story has to be the same. Make yours amazing!”

Winner Ages 9-12

Brody Ware

Baker, Florida

After Brody Ware was born, Jaclyn Ware took him for an initial pediatrician visit. She was concerned about Brody’s breath- ing, but a new nurse practitioner said he was a healthy baby. At the next visit, his pediatrician immediately knew something was wrong.

Brody was found to have ventricular septal defects, patent foramen ovale, patent ductus arteriosus, coarctation of the aorta (CoA) and a bicuspid aortic valve. Five days before turning 3 months old, Brody had his first surgery. “The surgeon said it was the biggest VSD he had ever seen on a baby his size,” Ware recalls.

While his CoA and bicuspid valve haven’t been repaired yet, doctors are keeping a close watch. Meanwhile, Brody is now 9 years old, doing great and enjoying being
a kid. But when it comes to his scar, he’s been hesitant to share it — until now.

“I love seeing all the people that enter, and every year I ask Brody if he wants to enter but he always says no,” Ware says. “He’s very shy about his scar, and I keep telling him it’s something to be proud of. This year, he said yes when I asked. I don’t know what changed his mind, but I knew I had to get his picture taken quickly!”

Brody loves planes, and his brother works at a local airport, so an aviation- themed photo was perfect. “A really nice guy let us take Brody’s picture with his Gulfstream Commander 900,” Ware says. “I let Brody wear his great-grandfather’s Naval Aviator Wings, which made the picture so special to me.”

Winner Ages 13-17

Bella De La Rosa

Aurora, Illinois

Most people would never suspect that Bella De La Rosa was born with a ventricular septal defect and a bicuspid aorta that causes aortic stenosis and

had surgery at 7 days old for a coarctation repair. “After her first surgery, she did very well,” says Katie De La Rosa. “She’s an active and happy girl, and you wouldn’t know she has CHD, and that’s what Bella preferred. She didn’t like people knowing about her condition, and it bothered her that she was ‘different.’”

But today, the 14-year-old softball player is ready to open up about her heart condition. “After being afraid to share for many years, I’m finally ready to tell my story,” Bella says. “I think it’s important to talk about it, and there are many kids who have CHD that could benefit from hearing other kids’ stories.”

Last year, Bella’s stenosis worsened and, for the first time, her doctor mandated physical restrictions. Then in February 2022, she had her first open- heart surgery to repair the supravalvular aortic stenosis.

“Being away from school and the sport she loved, Bella could no longer hide her CHD, and that was challenging for her,” De La Rosa says. “Mental health is something we don’t always talk about during recovery, and yet that seemed to be the most challenging. The outpouring of love and support was a huge blessing and really boosted her self-confidence.”

Bella’s recovery went well, and she was back on the field within a few months. Getting back to the game and her team was a big motivation for Bella’s post- surgery recovery, so it made sense to take a photo that’s a tribute to what she loves.

“While surgeries and scars are bumps in the road, CHD doesn’t define you,” says De La Rosa. “You can still live a life you love and pursue your passions and dreams. Having something to look forward to or work toward can make all the difference.”

Winner Ages 18-25

Nina Johnson

Grand Forks, North Dakota

Twenty-one-year-old Nina Johnson decided to enter #RockYourScar to not only bring awareness to heart health
but also to show how heart warriors can overcome difficulties in life. “Everyone deserves to reach their dreams and goals, and I hope that others will take my story and be inspired by it,” she says.

Johnson was born with a common atrium, with the wall between the top two chambers of her heart not properly developed. To fix it, she had emergency open-heart surgery at 6 weeks old. Parts of her pericardium were used to build a functional septum. Today, Johnson has a heart murmur and two superior vena cava, but there’s no need for surgery at this time.

A junior at the University of North Dakota, Johnson chose a photo that conceptually represents the future she’s working toward. “I wanted to capture the fact that you can do anything you put your mind to and overcome any- thing life throws at you,” she says. “I was not supposed to live past birth, but I have been a fighter since day one and have never backed down from a challenge. Twenty-one years later, I am now on track to apply to medical school (specializing in pediatric cardiology) and cannot be more excited!”

Winner Ages 26-39

Gabreelynn Daniels

Compton, California

Having CHD isn’t stopping 31-year-old Gabreelynn Daniels from living life to the fullest.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in 2014 and master’s degree in 2017, she’s spent the past five years as a case manager and mental health therapist working at a youth homeless shelter in Hollywood.

Presently, she is preparing to sit for the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination by the end of the summer in hopes of becoming a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor.

At birth, Daniels was not expected to survive, and her “grand entrance into this world” was something straight out of a Hollywood movie — only it really happened in Inglewood. Born in her mother’s bed during the sixth month of pregnancy, Daniels weighed a mere 2 pounds and was still in the sac. Her lungs were not functioning, and she had two holes in her heart, a heart murmur and leaky valves.

She’s undergone six surgeries, four of which have been open-heart, with the latest procedure in December 2014 where she received an artificial mechanical heart valve. Diagnoses have changed over time, from atrial septal defect to mitral valve regurgitation, mitral valve stenosis and, presently, aortic valve regurgitation.

While Daniels’ life is full of medical challenges, she says they didn’t restrict her from growing up as a regular child. “I was taught how to be self-sufficient and not to use my condition as an excuse or a crutch,” she says. “I gained an appreciation for life because my family taught me to give back. Since God chose to give me life, it is my duty to give back to others this great gift He gave me.”

Daniels says she wants to show that life isn’t over once you receive your diagnosis, and her photo — which was taken during a photoshoot for her 30th birthday with the theme of “Walk In Your Purpose, Boldly” — represents her confidence and strength.

“You can live a full and fulfilling life while navigating CHD,” she says. “As an African American woman, I would like to be an example and success story of what’s to come.”

Winner Ages 40+

Eileen Huaco

Lakewood, Ohio

Eileen Huaco was born in 1982 in Peru, where very little was known about congenital heart disease at the time. She came to the U.S. for her first two surgeries at 6 months and 4 years old, but after that, Huaco says the rest of her childhood was “pretty normal.” She was an active child who attended school and participated in P.E., sports, dance, theater and cheerleading.

Then, in her 20s, the arrhythmias started. An ablation at age 25 allowed her to have a “normal life” for the next decade. But in 2018, the arrhythmias returned and required an open-heart surgery with the Fontan Conversion and Maze Procedure.

Last year during a routine screening, doctors told Huaco that she was in heart failure and needed a transplant. Today, she is on the heart transplant list waiting for her new heart.

It would be understandable if she were bitter about her situation, but her outlook is quite the opposite. “I am grateful for everything I have been through because it’s made me stronger and more empathic, and it taught me to enjoy gratefully every second of life,” Huaco says. “I have been able to do amazing things in my life, but learning through my own pain has been the hardest and the most rewarding thing. I still have a transplant coming up, and I am sure many lessons will be learned.”

This attitude is shown in Huaco’s winning photo. “CHD is not something that happens to us, it is a part of who we are,” she says. “We are born like this. It took me a while to stop fighting with my disease and accept my heart as it is.”

Huaco says she has also learned to be kinder to herself and give thanks to her body for overcoming so much. “We all have different paths in life. I understand that my path is different from the rest of my friends — even from the rest of other CHD patients,” she says. “Let’s not lose focus and energy in trying to have exactly the same experiences in life as people we know or what society tells us. Our own experience is a gift because it’s unique. Our hearts are exceptional!”

Staff Choice Winner

Mariana Hunter

Deltona, Florida

When Carmelia Lee went to her 20-week ultrasound, she learned something was different with her baby’s heart. Born at 37 weeks, Mariana had tricuspid atresia, right hypoplastic ventricle, atrial septal defect, ventricular septal defect, d-transposition of her great arteries and aortic coarctation.

“She was a rainbow baby after three miscarriages,” Lee says. “We initially were devastated with the unknown.”

Mariana’s first surgery was at 4 days old, with a second procedure at 4 months old. While Mariana had many bumps in the road, the now 2-year-old has pulled through defying odds. “She is vivacious, extremely smart and has an old soul,” says Lee. “She is in daycare and fully participating in everything it means to be a toddler.”

When this photo of Mariana was taken, she was finally getting strong enough in her core to sit up unaided. “I wanted to reflect the light she is and take the stigma of her condition away, and instead highlight its beauty and her progress at sunrise,” says Lee. “We initially grieved the life we thought she was robbed of, but now we celebrate the strength she has and will help her bust down any barrier she desires.”

People’s Choice Winner

Isabella Gross

Bountiful, Utah

At only 19 months old, Isabella Gross has been through a lot. Born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome and Turner Syndrome, she immediately had the Norwood and the Glenn surgery. But after two months, she went into heart failure and was placed on a heart transplant list. For the next 8.5 months, a ventricular assist device (VAD) kept her alive until she received her new heart.

“Her journey has been very rocky after the heart transplant, but she has shown that she is here to fight,” says Michelle Gross. “Through it all, she’s been an energetic and happy baby.”

Isabella’s winning photo was taken after her heart transplant, and Gross says she chose this image because it shows all of her scars. “It reminds me how strong and brave she is, and even with so much that has happened in her short life, she is still smiling and as happy as she can be,” Gross says.

“Isabella truly is one in a million,” she continues. “Her journey has had lots of complications, but she has been able to overcome most of them. This is so helpful for parents who feel hope- less. We love sharing her story to raise awareness and show that kids are strong and resilient.”

CHD Angel

Christopher Wheeler II

Houston, Texas

When Christopher (Deuce) Wheeler II was born on May 8, 2018, his family already knew that he had hypoplastic left heart syndrome because he’d been diagnosed while in utero. At three months old, he had his first heart procedure; six months later, Christopher had his first open-heart surgery. Due to complications from the surgery, he was placed on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) but suffered a stroke and lost the ability to move the right side of his body.

Although he had to learn to sit up and eat again, Christopher eventually triumphed, learning to crawl at 12 months old and walk at 17 months old. After recovering from his third heart surgery at 2.5 years old, Christopher was finally cleared to attend school.

Despite the strides he had made, a year later he became sick and was listed for a heart transplant. While waiting, Christopher turned 4, and this photo was taken to celebrate. “The Rock Your Scar contest empowered us to embrace his scars because they showed his triumph and courage,” Wheeler says.

In May 2022, Christopher’s condition worsened. He was placed on ECMO and once again suffered a stroke that affected the left side of his body. He also received a ventricular assist device that would help his heart continue to function until his heart transplant. On January 3, 2023, Christopher’s device malfunctioned, and he suffered irreversible damage. He passed away five days later.

“Christopher lived a beautiful life,” Wheeler says. “He liked to paint, sing and dance. He loved going to school and riding the school bus. He was kind, compassionate and had a great sense of humor. He loved going to the zoo and riding trains. He’d been to many amusement parks and even rode a rollercoaster. He aspired to be a doctor.

“While Christopher had to endure more than most, we made sure that he had a chance to experience life,” Wheeler continues. “His smile and laugh could light up any room. His life has touched many, and it is our hope that his life will always be remembered.”