Kayla MartinKayla Martin’s mother told her as a child that she was born with a hole in her heart. At the time, neither of them fully understood what that meant.

Martin knew she sometimes couldn’t play basketball with her friends, and she was often the slowest runner in her class because she easily got fatigued. Other than that, the hole that separates the two upper chambers of her heart made her feel special in a way.

“I kind of thought it was cool, and I would tell my friends,” she said. “But I never understood that it affected my physical activity.”

Martin, 21, has a heart condition known as Atrial Septal Defect (ASD) that causes oxygen-rich blood to mix with deoxygenated blood and get pumped into her lungs. The once-massive hole in her heart has shrunk over the years to only a few millimeters, but her heart and lungs must still work harder as result.

The reason Martin knows as much as she does about her condition is because she’s a recent graduate of the UNC Greensboro School of Nursing. She started learning about ASD during her first semester of nursing school when she took a class that covered congenital heart defects in children.

“I believe if I would not have done nursing, I wouldn’t have looked into it the way that I have,” said Martin, who was raised in Winston-Salem and Lexington. “Before I had any medical knowledge, I always thought, ‘I have a hole in my heart. It can’t really cause any problems since I’ve had it my whole life.’

“But the nursing program really opened my eyes to the fact that this can be a serious condition. I need to be an advocate for myself and as a nurse an advocate for my patients who have this condition to understand it’s going to affect all aspects of life.”

Kayla Martin at graduationMartin graduated with honors from UNCG in May after earning her bachelor of science in nursing degree. She worked throughout nursing school as a certified nursing assistant at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center, coincidentally or not in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit (CICU).

Now a registered nurse at the hospital, Martin helped treat cardiac patients – many of them with heart failure – with her work in the CICU.

“The similarity is that my condition can lead to heart failure. Pregnancy can cause heart failure,” she said. “So, that’s the reason I can relate to my patients.”

Through her work in UNCG’s Lloyd International Honors College, Martin researched treatment options for adults born with ASD. Her senior honors thesis, entitled “The Lived Experience of Adults with Congenital Heart Disease,” focused on what people living with similar conditions experience.

The thesis gave her the opportunity to learn more about what she could expect as she gets older and looks to start a family.

“I have been impressed with Kayla and her commitment to research related to congenital heart disease in adults. Not only has Kayla gathered information related to her heart condition, she has gathered information that will help others.” – Kay Cowen, clinical professor of nursing who served as Martin’s faculty mentor

Martin has known since she was in middle school that her “path” would include nursing. Instead of going to daycare as a kid, she stayed with her grandmother, Jean Ferries, a retired pediatric nurse who helped take care of Martin’s diabetic grandfather.

Martin spent much of her childhood accompanying her grandfather to his doctor appointments and visiting him in the hospital. Along the way, she met nurses who made sure to sit down with her and ask her about school and how she was doing.

“The nurses were the ones who were there most of the time, and it was really hard to see my grandparents going through that process,” Martin said. “I didn’t understand it, but I could understand that the nurses were making things better and that they were there emotionally for my family.”

Story by Alex Abrams, School of Nursing

Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications