Melissa Leslie and her husband, Mark Leslie, were comforted by the kindness of strangers at a time of personal crisis and want to pass on that kindness. For them, the time of crisis began when their unborn daughter Anastasia was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect (CHD).
“It was a complete shock when my husband and I found out what was going on,” says Leslie. “We had no idea about this until it happened to us.”
Anastasia’s heart condition was discovered during a routine ultrasound when Leslie was 37 weeks pregnant. Leslie was sent to Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford University, where their daughter was delivered during her 38th week of pregnancy.
Anastasia underwent open-heart surgery in August 2014 at four months of age. It was the first of six surgeries and procedures the little heart warrior has undergone.
“We call our babies heart warriors just because they’re fighters,” says Leslie.
“Anastasia’s entire process has been exhausting and emotional. When you’re in the hospital, you’re so lonely. You get so involved with your child’s care. It’s so intense,” she continues.
During the hospitalizations, Anastasia was given a small, handmade, heart-shaped pillow. And that pillow from a stranger touched the hearts of Anastasia’s parents.
“It gave us hope,” says Leslie. “Now we want to try and find something good in all of this and find ways to help other families of heart warriors.”
Their own way of giving hope came about thru social media. In a contest on Facebook last January, Leslie won a child’s sensory tag blanket, called a lovey. The 14″ x 18″ blanket, made in the U.S. by Baby Jack and Company, has a teething toy and textured ribbon tags attached for sensory development. Anastasia loved it.
“How amazing would it be, we thought, if we could get people to donate these loveys for heart babies,” says Leslie.
Leslie and her husband launched the Share the Lovey project in February. Since then, they have raised money to purchase 150 loveys. Leslie personally delivers them to Stanford Children’s Hospital for distribution to heart warriors. “Share the Lovey” on Facebook, her support page for families of heart warriors, has almost 700 likes.
“Families realize they’re not alone when given a blanket from another heart family,” says Leslie. “Nobody can relate like another family that’s been through this.”
“Melissa is moving mountains,” says Mark Leslie, recalling the time in the parking lot at Westgate Shopping Mall when a stranger called out, “Are you the lovey lady?” Melissa had delivered a baby blanket to the woman’s grandson.
Leslie states that one in one hundred babies are born with a CHD, which, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, is the most common type of birth defect. The good news is that babies born with CHDs are living longer and healthier lives. However, their survival depends not just on how severe the CHD is, but also on when it is diagnosed and how it is treated.
“Congenital heart defects are a lot more common than I knew before I was a heart mom,” says Leslie, a 2000 graduate of Wilcox High School.
All heart herself, Leslie was a foster mom to 21 children over a five-year period, starting when she was single and 21. She and Mark, married six years, are parents to three adopted and two biological children.
“We are striving always to help others in any way we can, teaching our children that you can bless others even during your own storm,” writes Leslie on the Share the Lovey website, where you can find information on donating a lovey for a little heart warrior: www.sharethelovey.com.
“We want to find ways to promote this. I hope this gets bigger and bigger,” says Leslie.
On Sunday, May 17 at Round Table Pizza, 4400 Stevens Creek Blvd., San Jose, 20 percent of food sales between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. will go to Share the Lovey.