A Woman With Heart: American Heart Association features Cindy Allen-Stuckey

Mike Wolanin | The Republic Cindy Allen-Stuckey talks about being one of the first children to receive open heart surgery at Riley Hospital for Children and her book The Shift Cafe during an interview at The Republic in Columbus, Ind., Wednesday, June 12, 2024.

“No!” shouted Cindy Allen-Stuckey, age 5, as she stomped her foot.

In Riley Hospital, wearing monitors, the doctors had been making her take four steps up, and four steps down. Four steps up, and four steps down. Four steps up, and four steps down.

Years into searching for a diagnoses, the doctors were hoping to learn something through the tests. At 4 months old, she had been hospitalized and put in an oxygen tent for what was potentially a heart attack or pneumonia. According to her mom, doctors suspected she may have cystic fibrosis. They watched the monitors closely hoping an answer would appear.

In order to do so, they insisted she continue with the steps. But again, Allen-Stuckey stomped and said “No!”

When she stomped was when the doctors saw it: Her heart.

Sixty-eight years after the surgery, Allen-Stuckey of Indiana was recognized nationally in an feature article by the American Heart Association as one of the first children to undergo open heart surgery.

The life-saving procedure took place in 1956, when Allen-Stuckey was 6 years old. Decades passed before she was comfortable talking about it.

Until a couple of years ago, there hadn’t been any follow up appointments, or discussion about her surgery. But when her heart began to race, and continued to for a couple of days, Allen-Stuckey visited the doctor.

Although nothing was wrong, the doctor with Allen-Stuckey’s permission began tracking down records. Not only did these records reveal that Allen-Stuckey had two heart defects, but they also showed that Riley Hospital’s first heart surgery took place in 1956. Allen-Stuckey had hers on March 2nd of that year.

“That’s when I realized I was a walking miracle,” said Allen-Stuckey.

Allen-Stuckey’s book, “The Shift Café” was published in 2022. The book contains what Allen-Stuckey describes as tools to help people fufill their full potential. It also includes anecdotes from her experience with the surgery, after her editor suggested she do so.

“I really didn’t want to,” said Allen-Stuckey, of her initial reaction to the idea.”I hadn’t talked about it,” she said of the surgery.

In school, teachers knew about her surgery, and when the subject of the heart was brought up, they would ask her to share her experience. A prompt to which she always responded no.

“I didn’t want to be different,” Allen-Stuckey said.

The feeling of being different was also compounded with her experience as a young child in the hospital being unpleasant. Visiting hours were restricted in 1956 – a very brief amount of time on Wednesdays and Sundays. Allen-Stuckey’s recollection of her nine day stay in the hospital center around her parents not visiting.

“I knew when they were supposed to come visit, and I stood next to the elevator forever waiting for them to come and they didn’t show up,” said Allen-Stuckey.

She learned years later, after asking her mom about her parents absence from the hospital, that it was actually advised by the doctor, who felt the hours spent calming Allen-Stuckey could be avoided if the visits were scrapped.

“In 1956, it wasn’t that anybody was being mean, these were best practices. The parents really, at that time, weren’t included in anything,” said Allen-Stuckey.

However, the practices left Allen-Stuckey with a fear of abandonment. For many years after the surgery, this barred her from summer camps, sleepovers, and even a job that would require overnight training at a differnt location.

At Allen-Stuckey’s last job, she was required to travel abroad for a meeting. And although she was afraid, she was able to do it.

“I had to prove to me that I could do it,” she said.

In November of 2022, she was staying in Arizona, where she spends about half the year. When it was time to return to Indiana, she told her husband she was going to stay another month on her own. So she stayed, accompanied by her dog.

While overcoming her own fears, Allen-Stuckey hopes to use her story as a source of hope for others, especially parents who have a child with a heart defect. She expresses recognition to the doctors who perfomed the surgery, as well as what her own parents experienced.

“I had no idea what my parents went through to do this. They knew if I didn’t, I was going to die,” she said. Her parents never held her back from any activity following her surgery, even though she imagines it would’ve been very easy for them to do so.

“I want people to realize what it took to get to where we are now, and I want to give people hope,” said Allen-Stuckey.

“I’m just beginning this,” she said. Only very recently Allen-Stuckey felt comfortable talking about the surgery, as she just began sharing her story a couple of years ago with her book.

“I realized that I had no problems going up and talking to people about this, at all,” she said. At a 100 year celebration for the American Heart Association, with copies of her book, and the feature that had been written about her in the American Heart Association, Allen-Stuckey felt comfortable saying “I was one of the first children to ever have open heart surgery”.

“I’m all about helping people reach their potential. For me, this is just my next step,” she said.

Allen-Stuckey, who is also a speaker, gives a speech titled “The Power of Determination: How a Little Girl Stomped Her Foot and Saved Her Life.” In the speech, she talks about “heart wisdom shifts,” a term which she also references in her book. In the book, heart wisdom is defined as “The hidden truth held deep in your heart.”

Allen-Stuckey says that when heart wisdom shifts happen, they can change everything.