Lily Gagliardi '08 was recently featured as one of Connecticut Magazine's "40 Under 40: Class of 2014," for her work as a heart disease prevention activist and as the founder of Lily's Kids Inc., a non-profit organization committed to ensuring that all children live healthy, productive lives.
"I am unbelievably humbled to be selected as a top 40 under 40 by Connecticut Magazine," Gagliardi said. "This is an amazing group of people, and to be among them is an honor."
Gagliardi was born with a heart condition called Supraventricular Tachycardia (SVT). Those affected by SVT have an extra pathway in the heart, which periodically opens and allows the heart's electrical currents to pass through it. Due to the change of pathways taken by the currents, the heart rate rises significantly (an episode), causing a person's pulse to reach as high as 300 beats per minute. Episodes can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours and can occur from once a year to multiple times a week.
Gagliardi began to experience these episodes in eighth grade, but after a number of EKGs showed no irregularities, as the episodes had ended before the tests began, she was left undiagnosed. She remained silent about the continuing symptoms for a few years, until the fall of 11th grade, when the episodes began to happen during her field hockey games. Returning with her parents to their primary care physician, a different doctor advised her to stay away from caffeine and issued her a heart card monitor to see if the stimulant was the cause. After a few months of struggling with the heart card and emergency EKGs, she managed to capture an episode with the card and finally received her diagnosis. The following March, she elected to have surgery to close the extra pathway.
In the fall of her senior year, she was approached by the New Haven Register, The Hartford Courant and ESPN 2, who wanted to feature a strong athlete enduring and persevering with a heart condition. After the interviews were released, Gagliardi began to receive phone calls and messages from mothers and other teenagers suffering from similar conditions, seeking advice or opinions on treatment. Eager to speak with and help as many people as she could, she established Lily's Kids Inc. in 2007.
As the founder and CEO of a non-profit, Gagliardi's efforts to educate on and advocate for heart health keeps her busy in a variety of roles.
"My daily schedule is anything but routine," Gagliardi said. "No two days are the same. On any given day, I might be meeting with legislators, running a program with children, filming a short video, applying for grants or organizing an awareness event, to name a few. I also have a home office, so I am always on the clock. There is no such thing as nine to five for me."
Connecticut Magazine also cited Gagliardi's work on behalf of a 2012 Connecticut legislation that now requires hospitals to screen for heart conditions in all newborns. Because of her first-hand experience with a congenital heart condition, Gagliardi saw this legislation as not only crucial, but also very personal.
"I worked with the March of Dimes Connecticut Chapter along with other partners toward our common goal of the passage of this legislation," she said. "From attending meetings to submitting testimony, I fully supported this effort. I was proud to be invited by Governor Malloy's office to attend the bill signing."
Another of Gagliardi's proudest moments was when a program she created, Heart Yourself, was selected to be a part of the 2012 National Health Promotion Summit in Washington, D.C., and she was invited to present it. Heart Yourself engages youth to learn about healthy lifestyle choices including healthy eating, exercise and not smoking to help prevent heart disease.
"Most people don't realize this, but I am essentially an army of one," she said. "Therefore, I carry the bulk of the weight for any successes or failures. The small and large victories mean a lot to me because they reflect my heartfelt work."
Lily's Kids Inc. has also been selected as an official charity of the ING Hartford Marathon for three consecutive years, and the organization received an official citation from the Connecticut General Assembly in October 2012. Gagliardi has twice been invited by the NIH National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute to attend The Heart Truth's Red Dress Fashion Show in New York City, a popular annual event that that supports the Institute's national campaign of building awareness of heart disease, the leading cause of death for women.
"Most importantly though, the main reason I do this is for the kids I work with," Gagliardi said. "There is nothing more inspiring than to know my Heart Yourself program is contributing toward the prevention of heart disease in the next generation."