This winter, Becky Sadowski crocheted for a cause near and dear: her son’s heart.
Sadowski, of Fitchburg, volunteered this year for the national Little Hats, Big Hearts initiative for the American Heart Association, raising awareness of heart disease and congenital heart defects by providing handmade red hats to newborns nationwide. She was one of thousands of volunteers to hand-knit the hats for newborns at select hospitals.
Sadowski’s son, Matthew, was born with a congenital heart defect and had his first heart operation when he was just 14 hours old.
After the surgery, he was on a ventilator for nine days and did not leave the hospital until he was 15 days old.
Matthew was fine until just after his third birthday, when doctors decided that he needed to have a hole in his heart closed.
Then, at age 13, doctors determined he needed to have a valve replacement. On Valentine’s Day in 2014, Matthew had a pulmonary valve replacement and a tricuspid repair. It took him about nine months to recover.
Now 15 and a sophomore at Monty Tech, Matthew has a bovine valve that will need to be replaced about every five years, depending on medical advances.
“Before Matthew was born, we didn’t really know about these heart defects, and I think that’s how it is for most people,” Sadowski said. “Maybe down the line, me raising awareness about this will help someone who gets news about their child.”
Sadowski, her husband Eric, Matthew, and their two daughters have all volunteered for several events to raise awareness of congenital heart defects or to raise money for research. They’ve also tried to give back to Boston Children’s Hospital, where Matthew was treated, in any way they can.
February is American Heart Month, an annual celebration that encourages Americans to join the fight against heart disease.
In preparation for the Little Hats, Big Hearts program, volunteers such as Sadowski have spent the past months hand-knitting or crocheting more than 700 little hats for babies born this month at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Steward Health Care Systems.
Congenital heart defects such as Matthew’s are the most common type of birth defect in the country, occurring in at least nine of every 1,000 infants born each year.
But the problem, Sadowski said, is these defects are not visible. It’s difficult to raise awareness of a disease that can’t be seen on the outside.
“It’s not really discussed, how common (a congenital heart defect is),” she said, “and my son doesn’t really look sick. His symptoms are often very minute things.”
At Monty Tech, Matthew studies cabinet-making and hopes to be a teacher one day.
He can do everything a typical teenager does except play contact sports, which he said he wouldn’t have much interest in anyway.
“I don’t really feel like there’s much different,” he said. “I can do anything I feel comfortable with, which is pretty much anything.”
Matthew’s father said the teen has been able to take his medical issues in stride.
“It’s easier when this happens to a kid,” said Eric Sadowski. “He’s never known any different, so him and his heart adapted (to these circumstances).”
In June, Matthew turns 16. To celebrate the occasion, his mother made 16 hats for the Little Hats, Big Hearts program — one for each year that has passed since his first heart surgery.
“Hopefully, I’ll be able to make more next year,” Sadowski said.
She and her family plan to continue giving back to Children’s Hospital and participate in AHA events.
Sadowski emphasized their gratitude, adding that all of her children now “have a much greater understanding of how precious life is.”