Oregon preschooler serving as 2023-24 American Heart Association ambassador

Born with the congenital heart defect tetralogy of Fallot, Aislynn had open-heart surgery at 6 days old

Aislynn Skinner, 4, left, colors with little sister Breelyn Skinner, 2, at their Oregon home on Sept. 6, 2023. Aislynn, who was diagnosed with a critical congenital heart defect in utero, was selected as an American Heart Association Community Youth Heart Ambassador for the 2023-24 school year.

OREGON — Like most 4-year-olds, Aislynn Skinner’s favorites change rapidly, her answers often dependent on what she’s in the middle of doing or on the question’s phrasing.

Over the course of an hour, Aislynn’s favorite food went from the veggie chips she was munching on while watching “Diana and Roma” on YouTube to cookies to popcorn and, finally, to chicken nuggets with “special sauce.”

“It’s sauce, but it’s sour,” Aislynn said.

The only immediately visible evidence that the Oregon preschooler isn’t quite like other children is the 4-inch surgical scar that runs down her sternum.

Aislynn was born with tetralogy of Fallot — a combination of four congenital heart defects — and, at just 6 days old, underwent open-heart surgery.

“She was in the hospital for two weeks after birth,” said her mother, Jessica Skinner. “Since then, she’s been doing well. We know that she’s going to need at least one more open-heart surgery, probably between ages 5 to 7.”

The defects that make up tetralogy of Fallot are a hole between the lower chambers of the heart, an obstruction from the heart to the lungs, the aorta laying over the hole in the heart’s lower chambers and overly thickened muscles surrounding the lower right chamber of the heart.

Currently, Aislynn sees a cardiologist annually, although eventually the checkups will be more frequent, Skinner said. “We just had her checkup in July, and they said she’s good for at least another year.”

Aislynn isn’t shy about her “special heart,” and will show her scar if asked about it.

That will serve her well in her position as a 2023-24 American Heart Association community youth heart ambassador, said Christine Taylor. Youth ambassadors have had a personal diagnosis, witnessed the diagnosis of a loved one or made a personal lifestyle change to better theirs and their loved ones’ heart health, she said.

“Aislynn is so engaging and many people can relate to having a young child like her,” said Taylor, the American Heart Association development director of school engagement for northwest Illinois.

As an ambassador, Aislynn will work closely with the American Heart Association’s in-school programs, Kids Heart Challenge and American Heart Challenge, Taylor said. The two challenges are service-learning programs that teach students how to improve their overall health while doing good for the health of others, she said.

Aislynn and Skinner will join Taylor at local schools, mostly within Ogle County, as the schools kick off their Kids Heart Challenge, Taylor said. “We are all very excited, and I know many schools are, too, to meet Aislynn and her mother,” she said.

Aislynn wasn’t sure what she was looking forward to as a youth heart ambassador, but was able to answer with some prompting from her mom.

“You want to help kids learn about your special heart and how to be healthy, right?” Skinner asked.

“Yeah, my chicken nugget,” Aislynn replied happily, utilizing her favorite food as a nickname. It’s something she does all the time, Skinner said.

When asked what people can do to have a healthy heart, Aislynn said, “Eat strawberries and exercise and eat blueberries.”

Eating healthy and exercise are among the ways their family says healthy, Skinner said. Playing outside and a lot of sports also are regular methods, she said.

Skinner noted that Aislynn also takes baby aspirin daily, and they have to keep an eye out to see if she starts to tire more easily than the other kids. But, at least for now, Aislynn does “pretty good and keeps up with the other kids.”

“She was a little bit behind up until like a year-and-a-half [old], and then she caught up and she’s doing fine,” Skinner said. “Now I would say she’s ahead, if anything.”

Alexa Zoellner

Alexa Zoellner

Alexa Zoellner covers Ogle County for the Oregon Republican Reporter, Forreston Journal, Mt. Morris Times and Polo Tri-County Press. She has seven-plus years of experience in journalism and has won numerous awards, including a first place award for investigative reporting from the WNA.