Lessons from the Tin Man: Christopher follows his heart

Christopher, who was born with TGA and other heart defects, poses in the rooftop garden at Boston Children's.

When it comes to movies, 26-year-old Christopher Smith loves horror films. He counts It FollowsHush and Insidious among his top three. But his favorite movie of all time? The Wizard of Oz.

“I feel pretty connected to the Tin Man,” he says with a laugh.

Like the Tin Man, Smith has spent a lot of time thinking about his heart. Born with a number of complex heart conditions, including transposition of the great arteries (TGA), an atrial septal defect (ASD), a ventricular septal defect (VSD), complete heart block, congestive heart failure and dextrocardia, he’s had multiple surgeries and spent lots of time in the hospital.

“I’ve had a pacemaker since I was 3 weeks old and have had my pulmonary valve replaced five times,” says Smith.

Choosing Boston, choosing BACH

A Connecticut native, Smith decided to attend graduate school in Boston.

“Wherever I go, I need to make sure there’s a hospital nearby that can take care of me should anything happen,” says Smith. “I had heard about the Boston Adult Congenital Heart (BACH) Program at Boston Children’s Hospital and that it was one of the only programs in the world of its kind. So I knew Boston would be a really safe place for me.”

Christopher, who was born with TGA and other heart defects, stands by a car when he was a child.

It wouldn’t be Smith’s first experience at Boston Children’s. As a critically-ill 3-year-old, he had been airlifted to Boston Children’s for life-saving extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) treatment. After a successful treatment and recovery, he was transferred back to his local doctors in Connecticut.

Adult-appropriate care

As an adult, Smith says he appreciates the level of care he receives from his cardiologist, Dr. Keri Shafer, and the whole BACH team.

“It’s been amazing. The very first time I met Dr. Shafer, it was much different than seeing my pediatric cardiologist back home. Her questions were much more relevant, the rooms were more appropriate, and she just made me feel really comfortable,” he says. “It’s not that I was totally uncomfortable in pediatrics, but it was a little strange being a grown man waiting in Winnie the Pooh chairs.”

Christopher, who was born with TGA and other heart defects, talks with Dr. Keri Shafer in the rooftop garden at Boston Children's.
Smith and Shafer catch up on the rooftop garden at Boston Children’s (PHOTO: SOPHIE FABBRI/BOSTON CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL)

He says Shafer and Dr. Douglas Mah, director of the Pacemaker and ICD Program, have helped him deal with some ongoing health issues. “My pacemaker was in the wrong place, and Dr. Shafer and Dr. Mah helped get it to a much better spot in my body.”

Smith also says he appreciates the focus the BACH team places on the mental health of their patients.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t receive much support for mental health issues, and thankfully I had no major problems,” he says. “But all kids with congenital heart disease go through a certain amount of trauma and anxiety, and it’s helpful to learn how to cope with these issues as an adult. I really admire the BACH doctors for caring for the whole patient, not just focusing on the medical aspect of heart care.”

Paying it forward

Now that he’s completed his master’s in behavior analysis, Smith is working as a board certified behavior analyst for children with severe autism and other intellectual disabilities. As a manager, he oversees all educational and behavioral programming for two classrooms and two residential homes. It’s a career path he first became interested in during high school, when he helped a special education teacher with a social skills class for kids on the autism spectrum.

“Even though my issue is vastly different, I immediately felt really connected to these kids in a way people without health issues don’t understand,” he says. “I have a healthy body right now, and I want to use it to do something where I’m needed. I like knowing I’m doing something that benefits both these kids and the greater good.”

Smith sees his career choice as a way to pay forward his gratitude for the care he has received over the years. “It’s cool to think about how it’s trickled down. My doctors have helped me, and I, in turn, can help these kids.”

Learn more about the BACH Program.