A lifeline for families hit by heart disease

CNN Hero: Michelle Javian
CNN Hero: Michelle Javian


    CNN Hero: Michelle Javian


CNN Hero: Michelle Javian 01:48

Story highlights

  • Michelle Javian's father spent years in and out of a New York City hospital after a heart attack
  • She met families from out of town who sacrificed to get their loved ones world-class care
  • Javian co-founded Harboring Hearts to aid costs of transport, lodging, food and childcare
  • Do you know a hero? Nominations are open for 2014 CNN Heroes

New York (CNN)Michelle Javian remembers the exact moment she got the news that her father had a massive heart attack.

She was driving her car. Her mother called her.
"I just remember stopping in the middle of the street, just in complete shock," Javian said.
    Doctors were able to save her father's life that day, but he spent the next two years in and out of a New York City hospital to treat his heart disease.
    Fortunately, Javian and her family lived near the city and could easily travel to and from the hospital. But she met countless families in the hospital who were not as lucky.
    "They were living in the waiting rooms day in and day out, taking showers wherever and whenever they could, eating really unhealthy," said Javian, 31. "They were emotionally drained."
    New York City boasts world-class hospitals for cardiac care. But it is also one of the most expensive cities, putting hotels, transportation and even food out of reach for some families.
    Michelle Javian's  nonprofit assists families dealing with heart disease.
    After her father passed away in 2008, Javian teamed up with a friend to co-found Harboring Hearts. The New York City nonprofit provides financial and emotional relief to families battling heart disease.
    "We try to help them with what they would normally be able to handle on their own, but because of their attention and focus and dedication to their family member, they're unable to meet those needs," Javian said.
    Harboring Hearts helps cover expenses such as transportation, housing, meals and child care.
    Keeping family together
    Javian and her group consult with social workers from three hospitals to identify families who need them the most.
    For families such as the Gambinis, the support they receive from Harboring Hearts can be a lifesaver.
    Brandon Gambini had a heart transplant when he was 5 weeks old. Since then, the now 13-year-old has required medication and regular tests at the hospital to make sure his body is not rejecting his heart.
    His mother, Jacqueline, was introduced to Harboring Hearts in 2012, after Superstorm Sandy flooded the family's home and car. A single mother of three, Jacqueline had nowhere to turn to find a safe, clean place for her son. The family went to a crowded shelter, but because of Brandon's weak immune system, they could not stay there.
    "It was a really bad time. I had no money. I lost everything at once," Jacqueline said. "I told the hospital I needed help."
    Within 48 hours, Javian's group was able to find a hotel for the family. The organization also helped cover their mortgage and purchase new furniture for their house once they were able to move back in.
    Recently, the group funded the Gambinis' transportation to New York City and a hotel room near the hospital during Brandon's stay.
    "Having them is like having part of the family, and having someone you can ask when you need help," Jacqueline said. "It's a support -- something I don't have right now."
    From one heart to another
    Since 2009, Harboring Hearts has helped cover more than $150,000 in services for families, Javian said. The group also hosts roughly six community events a year, where recipient families can connect with each other. Nearly 3,000 families have participated in the events.
    "They can really relate to one another," Javian said. "Whether it is similar financial experiences or it is emotional, they connect and bond."
    For Javian, her efforts are a chance to keep her father's memory alive.
    "After my father passed away, it was really difficult, and I wanted to do something positive from the loss," she said. "I feel like it's one of my life's purposes ... to do good and bring happiness and relief and support to the families in need."
    Want to get involved? Check out the Harboring Hearts website at www.harboringhearts.org and see how to help.