CLIFTON PARK, N.Y. — The group of children seated on the carpet in the Park Manor Hotel banquet room last weekend were excited. After having eaten a buffet breakfast of bacon and eggs, bagels and getting their faces painted, Santa Claus was expected any minute.
When the Jolly Old Elf finally made his entrance, the room went strangely silent. It was as if the 45 children seated before him couldn't believe their eyes. Santa Claus in the flesh was here in Clifton Park.
As the gifts were handed out and the packages unwrapped the noise level quickly began to rise. Eyes got wider, smiles replaced looks of wonderment and the excited conversation between children and adults spread throughout the room.
Last Saturday's Breakfast With Santa was the annual holiday gathering of the Cardiac Kids, a group of 30 children born with congenital heart defects. The organization is part of the American Heart Association Capital Region. The Christmas breakfast was just one of several events the group holds during the year.
The Dec. 14 event was held in the banquet room of the Park Manor Hotel, 7 Northside Drive. The invitations included the 30 young members of the Cardiac Kids as well as siblings and parents. Everyone in this group knows everyone else well.
“We hold this event so the families can all support one another and spend time together,” the association's spokeswoman Katherine McCarthy said. “Cardiac kids was formed about 10 years ago. The Christmas event started around six or seven years back.”
In addition to Breakfast With Santa, the group attends a ValleyCats baseball game together each summer, a swim party, and goes apple picking. In February, the group has scheduled a trip to the Albany International Airport to see how its fire emergency crews operate.
The word congenital means at birth. A congenital heart defect occurs when the heart or the blood vessels near the heart don't develop normally before birth.
Jennifer Corcoran Conway is the Cardiac Kids' parent coordinator. She joined the Board of Directors of the American Heart Association seven years ago, one year after she was told her baby would be born with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome, a condition where there is no left ventricle.
The diagnosis came when she was 20 weeks pregnant with Aedan, her son, now eight years old and one of the kids at the breakfast.
“We were lucky,” Corcoran Conway said. “We found out before he was born. Aedan had open-heart surgeries at four days, six months and two years. Now he plays baseball, skis in the winter, and swims. He can play all sports where's there's no contact.”
Corcoran Conway said the Cardiac Kids group was already formed when she joined the board but its numbers were very small.
“They asked if I would take it on and grow it and I said absolutely,” she said. “We decided to reach out to new families who were in the PICU (Pediatric Intensive Care Unit) at Albany Med with care packages and raise awareness using social media. In the last few years, we've kind of exploded.”
Corcoran Conway is the prototype of the type of person the group is trying to reach.
“I'm so grateful that now there is this support group for families,” she said. “When Aedan was diagnosed, we felt all alone. We had never heard of a congenital heart defect. We didn't know anybody with one and for his first surgeries, we were all alone. Now, these families aren't alone. They have support right from the beginning. Nobody has to feel the way we did when we started our journey.”
Another family who appreciates the group is the James family of Clifton Park. Shannon James attended the breakfast with her three children, Jack, 11, Shawn, 5, and Maggie, 7. Jack was born with a condition called Transposition of the Great Vessel. His two major heart vessels, the aorta, and the pulmonary artery were reversed.
“After Jack was born, he began turning blue,” Shannon James said. “After two hours an amazing surgeon in Albany Med came in and said your son is critically ill and won't survive without open-heart surgery. When he was five days old, the surgeon went in and switched the vessels back. It was amazing. Eight days after surgery we came home.”
During a routine checkup this summer, however, doctors found Jack's EKG to be irregular. A visit to the Boston Children's Hospital was scheduled. Though the checkup in Boston found everything to be fine, Shannon James spent time nervously texting Corcoran Conway while the tests were going on.
“Every family here today has been through something like this,” James said. “They are the only people in the world who understand what it's like to go through something like that. It's a wonderful group; a group you don't want to be part of but once you're here you're grateful you have them.”
The major financial sponsor of the Cardiac Kids is Peter Connolly, general manager of Keeler Mercedes Benz. Connolly was at the breakfast and watched with glee as the children received their gifts from Santa.
He was asked why he selected this particular organization to support.
“This is one of the causes we've adopted,” he said. “I'm involved in a few nonprofits, but to tell the truth it's personal for me. These kids tug at my heart. One of the reasons for that is they never feel the world owes them something; they don't seem they are entitled. And if there's anyone in the world who is owed something, it's these kids.”