Stories from the Heart: Shelley Slanec

Sophie and Shelley. Sophie, as a tough newborn and later promoting Congenital Heart Disease Awareness Week.

Nothing is more powerful than a story from the heart. During Heart Health Month, we’re spreading awareness with stories of survival – this one from Tampa Electric Lead Administrative Specialist Shelley Slanec about her granddaughter, Sophie.

All Sophie Sanders had to do was come home from the hospital and stay, like any parents would want for their baby. Instead, two days later, the newborn went back. It was Oct. 1, 2005.

Something was wrong; Sophie wasn’t eating. At first, hospital doctors said everything would be OK, but Sophie’s mother Tanya knew better. She requested blood work for her daughter, and thanks to the efforts of a nurse practitioner named Donna – who arranged for emergency transportation to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg – Sophie made it through the first fight of her life.
“Our entire family is on pins and needles each and every time Sophie has had a surgery or heart catheterization,” said Shelley Slanec, Sophie’s grandmother and Tampa Electric Western Service Area Lead Administrative Specialist. “The fear and anxiety is enormous and continues until after recovery when she wakes up and speaks to us.”

Like Tampa Electric’s Amber Alonso and her daughter Emma, Shelley and Sophie know more about the heart than most people because of the reality that found them and the roller coaster of hospital stays and tense moments it’s unleashed. But they know hope as well.

Sophie’s condition includes tricuspid atresia, in which a valve between two chambers of the heart fails to form. She also has an interrupted aortic arch, meaning part of the main blood vessel that carries oxygen away from the heart was missing. Sophie’s atrial septal defect and ventricular septal defect, meanwhile, meant there were holes in her heart’s upper and lower chambers, respectively. All of these things together prevented Sophie’s body from getting enough oxygen.

In a race against time, Sophie underwent open-heart surgery a little over a month after being born. The surgery, called hybrid, involves putting bands around pulmonary arteries to better regulate blood and thus oxygen flow. It was the first operation of its kind performed at All Children’s Hospital; it lasted more than four hours and Sophie had a 50 percent chance of survival. But she made it, like she’s made it through three more open-heart surgeries. She’s had nearly 40 heart catheterizations, hundreds of blood-draws, numerous MRIs and CT scans, hundreds of X-rays and more. Sophie takes seven kinds of medicine a day and gets a blood infusion weekly. Because of the risk that comes with major surgery, she has none scheduled at the moment.

Sophie being so grown up while the medical experts do their tests.

Yet just as the sun rises each day, Shelley’s optimism rises to the occasion. “Stay positive and believe in miracles because Sophie is proof that they happen.”

It’s a belief that guides her as Sophie’s journey continues with its ups and downs. Sophie lost her father to an accident in 2016, but she perseveres. She has a champion in her older sister Haley. Shelley encourages everyone to donate blood, and she even goes above and beyond by helping organize blood drives at Western Service Area. She and her family belong to Mended Little Hearts, an organization that helps families with children in need of heart procedures.

Sophie and her mom live in Colorado now; Shelley talks with them daily via FaceTime. She knows she’s far from alone in what she cares about, like she knows it doesn’t have to be Heart Month or Congenital Heart Disease Week to think about people struggling with, living with and even prevailing over heart problems – Shelley does it all the time. With Sophie as a “heart warrior hero,” as she calls her, she knows maybe best of all about the critical importance of hope.

Heart health is an important cause for Tampa Electric as our President and CEO Archie Collins is chairing the 2023 Tampa Heart Walk in November. Click here to participate, lead a team and/or donate to the Heart Walk. You can make a difference when it comes to the #1 and #5 causes of death: heart disease and stroke. So, we hope you are able to join us and save lives come November!