Garo Hovnanian was four and a half years old when he first came to DEBORAH Heart & Lung Center for life-saving surgery back in October 1986. Garo, now 25, was born with atrial septal defect (ASD)--a hole in the wall between the two upper chambers of his heart. Although Garo’s heart condition was diagnosed at birth, his physicians recommended a period of monitoring to see if the hole would close on its own, while treating any symptoms with medication. So Garo’s parents, Nancy and Stephen Hovnanian of Mount Laurel, waited and watched over their son’s growth and progress with great diligence.
Initially, the Hovnanians had little to worry about. Young Garo enjoyed robust health and grew to be an alert, active, sturdy and strong-willed toddler reaching all the age-appropriate developmental milestones with ease. However, by the time Garo was four; his parents noticed a rapid decline in his activity level accompanied by increased fatigue and shortness of breath
At that time, the Hovnanian consulted Garo’s cardiologist who felt that Garo was still too young for surgery. But the Hovnanians were convinced that their son’s otherwise vigorous health would be further compromised by delaying the inevitable and that the need for surgery became paramount. They sought a second opinion at Deborah Heart and Lung Center where Pediatric Cardiologist (now retired), Dr. Jay Eldridge and Cardiothoracic Surgeon (now VP of Medical Affairs), Dr. Lynn McGrath felt strongly that Garo was fit for surgery. The Hovnanians, who knew of Deborah’s outstanding reputation for ground-breaking heart surgeries, state of the art technology, quality care and positive outcomes, were confident that Garo would be in good hands and they set a date for surgery.
Garo’s recollection of his week long stay at Deborah is limited but select memories remain vivid. “It was the week of Halloween,” the Director of Marketing for J.S. Hovnanian & Sons recalls. “I remember the game room, the video games, a yellow table, a coloring book about “Your Heart Surgery” and “Mr. Bubbles”—the dreaded EKG machine with the plastic suction cups,” Garo says, cringing. He also remembers waking up after surgery and seeing his mother across the room, looking relieved and a visit from a special guest-- actor/entertainer Ben Vereen who was then host of PBS’s Zoobilee Zoo. Mostly, however, Garo remembers the stitches on his chest and the long, zipper-like scar that dominated his upper body for most of his young life. “Ironically,” Garo says thoughtfully, “years after my own surgery, my paternal grandfather, who recently passed away, would end up with a similar scar. With a family history of heart disease perhaps it was preordained but it was a unique bond for a child to share with his grandfather.”
Just one day after surgery, the pediatric nurses encouraged young Garo to get out of bed and move around. This proved beneficial, expediting his recovery and before long he was back in the game room playing his favorite video games. Once released, Garo was closely monitored every few months for the first year as he slowly resumed his daily activities and then every two years until he was 18.
Garo admits that although he was self-conscious about the zipper-like scar on his chest, he never really felt the threat of not being healthy or not being like other kids. But as his interest in contact sports increased, Garo had to come to terms with his physical limitations and adjust his activity goals accordingly. It was difficult at first but he never let his heart defect define who he was—it was simply a part of the story of his life. Garo remained active throughout high school, graduated from Princeton University in June 2004 and joined his family’s renowned homebuilding business headquartered in Mt. Laurel.
Garo, who married his soulmate Tamar Eliz Jeknavorian, of Boston, in a beautiful and heartfelt ceremony at an Armenian Church in Cheltenham in October 2006, possesses a maturity that is beyond his chronological years. Garo is aware that just knowing his family’s history of heart disease and his personal experience with it is not enough. He realizes that he has to be proactive—that he has a personal responsibility to himself and now to Tamar to give himself the best possible chance for a healthy life. With Tamar’s influence and support, Garo exercises regularly, eats plenty of whole foods and grains, lean meats, fruits and vegetables, drinks plenty of water, does not smoke and finds ways to minimize stress in his life.
Thanks to his experience at Deborah, Garo Hovnanian says his hopes and dreams for a beautiful future are within his grasp. In a special message to their wedding guests and in effort to show their appreciation for the lifesaving surgery he received at Deborah more than 21 years ago, Garo and Tamar have committed to making a financial contribution to Deborah Hospital Foundation in support of Deborah Heart and Lung Center each October on the anniversary of their marriage. Their support celebrates the deep nature of the love they share with each other and embraces Garo’s beautifully restored heart which now beats in perfect harmony to the rhythm of his well-balanced life.