Harboring Hearts: Battling Heart Disease with Compassion

A way of healing turns into a safety net for thousands of families in their time of greatest need.

A typical day, going about daily chores, taking that 20-minute walk, or going off to work, and then you get the call. Suddenly, everything grinds to a halt; a loved one has had a heart attack and is en route to a hospital. Adrenaline kicks in and off you go, making a few calls along the way to inform others and making sure a friend feeds your pet because you don’t know when you’ll be back home.

Questions flood through your mind as you try to maintain composure. You arrive at the ER and eventually told of your loved one’s condition. Time passes, and finally, you can be with them. Just the sight of all the monitors, tubes, and IV is enough to scare you, but you must be strong and comforting for them and the rest of the family. What happens next? It is just the beginning.

Hitting Home

This scenario repeats itself multiple times a day in every community across the country. It happened to Michelle Javian when she learned that her father was rushed to the ER of a New York City hospital. Fortunately, doctors were able to save him, but he stayed at the hospital for the next two years, receiving treatment for his heart disease until he passed away in 2008 a few months after a heart transplant.

As she went through her experience with her father, Javian met many families going through a similar experience. They shared their stories and were supportive of one another. For her, the commute to the hospital was easy since she lived nearby. But she saw families living in the waiting rooms. They were there every day, sleeping on couches, eating whatever was handy, showering wherever they could. Emotionally, dealing with her father’s disease took its toll on her, but these families were going through such hardship; it was hard to fathom how they were bearing up.

Help Through the Hurt

After her father’s passing, Javian had wanted to keep her father’s memory alive. She recalls in a Huffington Post interview, “I knew at that moment I had to do something in my life that would stand as a legacy and testament to the compassion, commitment, and sense of community my father instilled in me and in our family.”

Her heart was so filled with compassion to help the families she encountered, that she and her friend, Yuki Kotani, decided to co-found Harboring Hearts in 2009. She says forming the non-profit helped her to grieve and to heal by helping to ease the challenges endured by these families who faced severe financial hardship, some, even bankruptcy or foreclosure of their home, due to the tremendous expense of medical care.

Based out of New York, the organization provides support for critically ill heart patients and their family caregivers who must travel to receive lifesaving medical treatment. A family gets financial relief when tending to the needs of their loved one during their stay in the hospital through recovery. Harboring Hearts offers an Emergency Program that provides short-term housing grants and funds to cover necessary living expenses such as transportation, childcare, prescription co-pays, and meals.

Working with social workers from area hospitals, families with the greatest need are identified and helped on a case-by-case basis. Patients and families also receive access to information resources, educational programs, and recreational programs promoting community and heart-healthy living.

“We try to help them with what they would normally be able to handle on their own, but because of their attention and focus and dedication to their family member, they’re unable to meet those needs,” Javian says to CNN.

Keeping Spirits High

Support for Harboring Hearts has grown over the years, with a broad range of people and companies wanting to pitch in to help. More partners and hospitals have come on board, helping to expand services to support a growing number of families needing help.

Each year, Harboring Hearts hosts several community events where recipients have a one-day reprieve from the daily onslaught of hard medical routines. Patients and families enjoy a carefree atmosphere where they engage in games, music, food, and arts and crafts. Thousands of families have attended these events. Meeting the families that have been helped and making a difference in their lives makes it all worthwhile for Javian.

The organization also partners with social work teams providing support groups for caregivers, LVAD patients and their caregivers, as well as fetal heart support groups and a teen heart transplant support group. Additionally, their Hope 4 Heart Days program treats well patients and their families to a day in New York City enjoying activities such as sightseeing, Broadway shows, sports events, and other goodies.

A caregiver food delivery service provides heart-healthy meals for the caregiver right at the patient’s bedside. Being well-fed, caregivers can provide stronger support without the worry of leaving the bedside.

Carrying the Torch

Javian was born in Queens, New York, and grew up in Long Island. Part of a vibrant Armenian community, she enjoyed her summers at Camp Nubar. After graduating from Georgetown University with a bachelor’s degree in health studies, she moved to Manhattan and worked in marketing for Bank of America’s healthcare division. It was during this time when her father was hospitalized for nearly two years with her at his bedside.

Aside from her work at Harboring Hearts, Javian has active roles at other charities such as a Board member of New York-Presbyterian Hospital New Leaders, heart advocate and volunteer with the American Heart Association, and as a founding member of Friends of Best Buddies, Manhattan chapter.

Her hard work and devotion to her cause have been widely recognized. Javian has been honored as a CNN Hero and named one of the 20 Most Influential Young Philanthropists by the New York Observer in 2014. She was awarded the Maurice Gurin Memorial Scholarship in 2009 by the Association of Fundraising Professionals. She was also a semi-finalist in SELF Magazine’s “Women Doing Good” contest in 2009 and winner of “30 under 30” by Rosewood Hotel and Resorts in 2010.

Now, as a Board Member for Harboring Hearts, Javian pours her efforts into supporting the Executive Director, Missy Rahman, in growing the non-profit by seeking charitable donations and making connections that will benefit the organization and the families served. Her schedule is full, but what keeps her going? She reminds herself of what her father used to say, “you have to take big risks to get to big places.” — words that inspire her every day.

Learn more about Harboring Hearts and how you can help at harboringhearts.org.