Living Life With All His Heart

Published on 
August 18, 2016


All parents face tough questions from their children, but Cynthia Harkins has had to answer some particularly poignant questions from her son, David.

“He asked me once if he really has half a heart,” Cynthia recalls. “I told him that, for some people, this is the easiest way to explain his condition, but make no mistake: He has a lot more heart than that. He has what God created.”   


David was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS), a life-threatening condition in which the left side of the heart is critically underdeveloped, and thus unable to effectively pump blood to the body.

He’s had to overcome one hurdle after another, but the Laguna Niguel 13-year-old takes a decidedly wholehearted approach to life—and has a huge heart for helping others. This year, he joined the Junior Ambassadors at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and raised more than $1,400 for CHLA’s Dreamnight at the Los Angeles Zoo.

“It felt good to help out the kids,” explains David. “I wanted to give back to Children’s Hospital for saving my life.”

‘Be brave, and be strong’

When David was born in December 2002, Cynthia was only able to hold him for a moment before he was whisked away and airlifted to CHLA. It was just enough time for her to whisper her first words of motherly encouragement: “Be brave, and be strong.”      

He would end up needing every ounce of strength his little body could muster. At 6 days old, he had the first of three reconstructive open-heart surgeries to enable his heart to function with one ventricle instead of two. He had the second surgery at 4 months, and the third when he was almost 4 years old.

All three surgeries were performed at CHLA by cardiothoracic surgeon Vaughn Starnes, MD, co-director of the Heart Institute. But while David’s skin finally turned pink after the third surgery, his struggles weren’t over.

Soon after that surgery, he suffered a stroke. As if that weren’t enough, his body began to swell and his belly fill up with fluid as his veins were unable to route blood to the lungs. A fourth surgery was required to address the problem. At one point, he was near death.

But David rallied, and after six weeks Cynthia and her husband, James, brought him home. He was so weak, they had to prop him up with pillows so he could sit up. He had developmental delays, and he needed hours of physical, occupational and speech therapy to help him fully recover. Yet, for the first time, no surgeries loomed.  

“We were finally breathing,” she says. “It was like, we can almost have a normal life.”

Living life to the fullest

Today, David is a happy, soon-to-be-seventh-grader who likes to travel (he recently went zip lining and night snorkeling in Hawaii), bowl, play Xbox with friends, go to Anaheim Ducks games, and help with sound and video production at his school and church. He loves the Junior Ambassadors, and this summer he’s planning a lemonade stand with friends to support the Heart Institute.

To his mom’s dismay, he also loves riding the biggest and scariest roller coasters he can find, such as the Xcelerator at Knott’s Berry Farm.


“It goes to 82 mph in three seconds,” David says, then bursts out laughing. “My mom is so scared of it!”

Because of his HLHS, he has some limitations—exercise will always be tough for him—and he’s monitored regularly at CHLA.

“It’s a complex condition, so we follow patients carefully to optimize the physiology they have for the long term,” says Sarah Badran, MD, David’s cardiologist at CHLA. “We have patients who are in their 20s and going to college and getting jobs. Our focus is not just helping kids to survive, but to survive well.”

For David and his family, that means living life to the fullest every day, and holding fast to their strong faith.

“We believe God is good all the time, and we’ve been given a gift to see the true blessings in living in today,” Cynthia says. “David is a fighter with a heart of gold, and we are forever grateful to Children’s Hospital for giving him this chance at life.”

How you can help

To help kids just like David, consider making a donation to Children's Hospital Los Angeles. Visit