Standing Up to Surgical Scars

June 17, 2019 7:00 AM

Kristin VanSingel is proud of her scars, the result of several critical heart surgeries since infancy that have kept her alive.

Emma Burcusel Photography

Kristin VanSingel is no stranger to surgery — or to keeping a positive attitude in the face of adversity. The 36-year-old wears her surgical scars with pride as a reminder of what she’s overcome.

Born with a serious heart condition, VanSingel had her first cardiac surgery at just one day old.

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“My parents were concerned when I was born because I was gray in color,” says the real estate agent and blog contributor.

Emma Burcusel Photography

An alarming diagnosis

The doctors whisked her away, diagnosing her with congenital aortic stenosis, a dangerous narrowing of the aortic valve that affects approximately 6 in every 1,000 infants and occurs more often in boys.

Just hours after her diagnosis, she was rushed by ambulance to University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. There, the pediatric cardiac surgery team would perform an emergency valvuloplasty to widen VanSingel’s narrowed aortic valve.

She was in and out of the hospital for the first few years of her life. Unable to take a bottle, VanSingel was fed through a tube. At 18 months old, she faced her second open-heart surgery with doctors implanting a bioprosthetic valve to further improve blood flow.

In 1995, at age 12, VanSingel underwent the Ross-Konno procedure performed by U-M thoracic surgeon Edward Bove, M.D. During this open-heart surgery, the damaged aortic valve is removed and replaced with the patient’s pulmonary valve. A second pulmonary valve, provided by either an animal or human donor, is then attached where the initial valve was removed.

Finding strength in her scars

Although her grandparents suffered from high blood pressure and aortic stenosis, VanSingel’s condition does not appear to be genetic.

“I’m the only one in the family with this type of heart condition. It was just a fluke,” she says.

As a result of her surgeries, VanSingel has two sternotomy scars (vertical incisions in the chest along the sternum) as well as other scars associated with various procedures.

However, she has never felt compelled to hide them.

“My parents taught me to be proud of who I am,” she says, adding, “My scars are a part of my identity. I can’t envision myself without them.”

Nor does VanSingel mind answering questions about her scars.

“I’m an open book when it comes to talking about my heart condition and scars,” she says.

She has also learned an important lesson when faced with hurtful comments about the scars, especially during her teen years: “Don’t let another person’s words change the way you feel about yourself.”

Facing life's challenges head-on

VanSingel faces a future surgery to repair a leaking pulmonary valve. She’s also experienced episodes of atrial fibrillation for which her heart was shocked back into rhythm and may face a future catheter ablation to treat the condition.

Because of her heart history, she was advised not to become pregnant. Without hesitation, she and her husband, Brian, chose to expand their family through adoption. They are now the proud parents of a beautiful 3-year-old daughter who was born prematurely with heart and lung issues.

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VanSingel and Brian feel they were the perfect choice to become parents to this particular child.

“She’s thriving,” says VanSingel, who is teaching her daughter the important life lessons she’s learned along the way about confidence, overcoming adversity and living life to the fullest.

Her message to others, with or without scars, is straightforward: “Be confident in yourself and in your body image.” 

Kristin VanSingel’s blog articles can be found here and here.