Anna puts her whole heart into Jump Rope

11 Sep 2020

Merryn and Lee Merrifield registered their two daughters, Anna and Elena, for the Heart Foundation’s Jump Rope for Heart program on 30 July this year – a very significant date for the Ballarat family.

Exactly six years earlier, Merryn and Lee were at Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, awaiting the open-heart surgery that would save three-week-old Anna’s life.

Shortly after Anna’s birth, the couple learned their newborn had a heart murmur. An ultrasound scan revealed a hole in her heart.

In many babies, a hole in the heart will close on its own over time and only requires monitoring. Merryn and Lee were cleared to take Anna home from hospital. However, in coming days they became increasingly concerned about Anna’s health.

“As a newborn, Elena had looked serene when sleeping,” Merryn said. “But when Anna was asleep, her lungs heaved and it looked as though she was using every muscle in her little body to breathe. It was completely different to her older sister and very worrying.”

A second scan when Anna was a week old showed she actually had two holes in her heart – one between the upper chambers, and one between the lower chambers.

This was a serious scenario, and the very next day the family was referred to Royal Children’s Hospital. Specialists there told Merryn and Lee that Anna needed open-heart surgery as soon as possible. She had her operation on 1 August 2014.

“It was surreal,” Merryn said. “In just three weeks, I had gone from giving birth to sending my tiny baby off for invasive surgery. But we understood that Anna needed the operation and that she was in good hands.”

Anna recovered well, and apart from annual check-ups with her heart specialist, she is now like any other six-year-old kid.

“We were extremely lucky, and that’s why Anna and Elena were so keen to sign up for the Jump Rope program at their school, Ballarat Grammar,” Merryn said. “They understand that doctors saved Anna’s life, and researchers need money to learn more about heart conditions like hers.”

Mark Warwick, Ballarat Grammar’s Head of Junior School, said: “Ballarat Grammar supports our students to regularly participate and contribute to meaningful community-focused events and fundraising, and there could be none more meaningful than the Heart Foundation for Anna and her family.

“In addition, Jump Rope for Heart promotes healthy regular activity, which we always encourage in our students for wellness in body and mind. We’re proud of our strong involvement in this event for over 20 years.” Heart Foundation Director of Active Living, Adjunct Professor Trevor Shilton, thanked Anna, Elena, and all Jump Rope participants across Australia for participating in the program.

"As these kids discovered, Jump Rope for Heart is lots of fun and great exercise, but it also helps the Heart Foundation in its important work funding lifesaving research and health projects."

“Heart Foundation-funded research has helped make big advances in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of heart disease over the past six decades, including genetic conditions.”

This year has posed some challenges for the Jump Rope for Heart program, with the coronavirus pandemic disrupting schools across the country, Professor Shilton said.

“In response, we have developed new ways to engage with teachers, kids and parents,” he said. “This includes some terrific online videos about skipping and heart health, as well as instructional videos on how to do neat tricks like the ‘Criss Cross’ and the ‘Awesome Annie’.”

Schools that participate in Jump Rope mark the end of the program with a “Jump Off Day”. This gives students a chance to show off the skipping skills they have learned throughout the term.

Usually, kids do their Jump Off together in a big group at school. However, due to coronavirus restrictions, Ballarat Grammar will hold its first ever “virtual Jump Off” on 11 September, with students joining in from home via video call.

Jump Rope for Heart is one of Australia’s favourite school physical activity programs, inspiring kids to embrace skipping as a fun way to get active. 

Since the program’s inception in 1983, more than 10 million Australian kids and more than 90 per cent of Aussie schools have taken part in Jump Rope for Heart. In that time, schools have raised awareness and more than $104 million to help the Heart Foundation fight heart disease – Australia’s single leading cause of death.

Teachers who are interested in registering their school for Jump Rope for Heart can sign up here.