Lauren Evanovich, PhD – My interview with Congenital Heart Defect Research Award recipient Kathryn Vannatta, PhD
Dr. Lauren Evanovich is an American Heart Association volunteer and adult living with a congenital heart defect. She interviewed a recipient of the CHD Research Awards, which are co-funded by the American Heart Association and The Children’s Heart Foundation.
The American Heart Association and The Children's Heart Foundation have continued their efforts to co-fund a research program specifically for congenital heart defect (CHD) research and have recently announced the next round of recipients for this year’s CHD Research Awards. As a part of this, I had the pleasure of interviewing one of this rounds recipient, Kathryn Vannatta, PhD, from Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
Dr. Vannatta’s research background has traditionally focused on a number of chronic illness populations, mostly pediatric oncology and the social-emotional and behavioral implications in health psychology. As a part of a mentoring program, a cardiology fellow was interested in Dr. Vannatta’s work, and through the mentoring grant for health psychology, their areas of interest began to overlap. Dr. Vannatta and colleagues began to explore the transition from pediatrics to adults for CHD patients, specifically the challenges faced by children and their families with CHD, the implications of CHD on peer relationships or lack thereof, and the social-emotional growth process as compared to a typically developing/healthy peer.
The preliminary research that started from this mentoring relationship has developed into the research funded by this CHD Research Award. The study will focus on identifying details about social difficulties experienced by children with CHD, specifically targeting complex types of CHD (e.g., single ventricle, Fontan, transposition of the great arteries, others that carry risk of anoxic and cognitive academic, social, and/or informational processing deficits). The study will compare levels of social withdrawal, disruptive behavior, and whether children with CHD are victimized by their peers compared to typically developing/healthy peers. The research will also examine if children with CHD have more or less peer group interactions, or have fewer friends than their healthy peers. What I found super interesting and unique about Dr. Vannatta’s approach is that the study will then test whether these difficulties are explained by social and environmental factors such as cognitive and social-affective abilities or less engagement in physical activity and extracurricular activities, as well as the benefits of different parenting practices and types of school environments in promoting social experience. This information will allow Dr. Vannatta and team to see early patterns in development of children with CHD that can show consistency as growth continues to academic success and sense of belonging in peer relationships, which can be a precursor for outcomes as children with CHD transition to the ever growing (YAY!) population of adults with CHD.
As a 30-year old woman with CHD, this is very exciting research! Resilience is one of the best things I’ve experienced in others I know with CHD, and to be able to pinpoint developmental practices and perspectives on what are setting children with CHD up for success early on will continue to build resilience not only in the medical sense, but with social, behavioral, emotional and academic development. Dr. Vannatta’s approach to explore environmental factors such as school and family as significant systems that facilitate stronger peer relationships, create more opportunities for social and emotional interactions and overall positive interactions, will help to create a toolbox of strategies to help all children (and future adults) who may not have the same environmental systems to be able to access supports needed for success! How cool!
While I could continue on about the work of Dr. Vannatta and her team, especially because it relates to the work I do with students and is a personal interest to me with CHD, I will leave you with a personal note from Dr. Vannatta.
“How do we help children who face health challenges not only survive but have high-quality survival? I want to help kids with cardiac challenges have not just longer lives, but happy, long lives.”
If you would like to support the Congenital Heart Defect Research Awards, the American Heart Association and The Children’s Heart Foundation have just announced the Hope and Jack Fund, named in honor of Hope and Jack, who both are living with a complex heart defect. Your gift to the Fund will directly support future research studies like Dr. Vannatta’s.