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Books@Heart: A new early childhood literacy and reading program for our heart warriors

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Books at Heart

Photo courtesy of Dr. Kriti Puri

As a pediatric cardiologist and critical care physician at Texas Children’s Heart Center®, I provide care to infants and children with complex heart disease, including congenital and acquired heart disease, advanced heart failure and heart transplantation. Every day, I have the opportunity to work with so many dedicated teams focused on improving outcomes for these patients requiring incredibly specialized and cutting-edge cardiac care. In addition to supporting our brave heart warriors and their families, I am passionate about another cause that is near and dear to my heart: advocating for early childhood literacy and language development.

Early language and literacy promotion is an integral part of pediatric and infant care. In fact, research shows that simply reading to your infant during the first six months of life can increase parent-child reading practices and improve neurodevelopmental outcomes in children by the time they turn 2-years-old. Furthermore, promoting early literacy during infancy is associated with greater expressive and receptive vocabulary, better reading comprehension, stronger IQ scores and better school performance.

Realizing the need to bring language development and early childhood reading to our heart warriors at Texas Children’s, my colleague, Dr. Amanda Ruth, and I collaborated with our partners in cardiology, critical care and the Heart Center’s developmental care team led by Dr. Justin Elhoff, to create an early childhood literacy and reading program for infants with congenital heart disease (CHD). On Feb. 1, 2021, our team launched Books@Heart. Through this program, all infants in the Heart Center receive books, reading guidance and language development sessions by our team of speech and language pathologists at regular intervals during infancy. Parents and providers receive a reading calendar and “star” stickers to track reading sessions. Stickers and trophies are awarded to children to encourage good reading habits.

Thanks to the support from our generous community supporters – like the Women’s Club of Houston which launched a book drive and also sponsored the Books@Heart book carts (a much awaited sight every Monday in the Heart Center) – 155 patients have received a total of 189 books and have been read a total of 1,480 times. Children earn a reading champion medal when they receive 14 stars and a reading trophy when they receive 21 stars in a calendar month. In addition, children who have a “perfect reading month” and are read to every day receive a bonus book, to continue to motivate reading. Currently, the infants of Books@Heart have been awarded 15 reading trophies and 17 reading medals. Kudos to them!

Our Books@Heart program has been an instant hit among patients, parents and providers alike. Not only is it beneficial to our patients in the long-run, but parents enjoy reading time with their babies, too. When parents read to their children often, it creates a special bond, sense of intimacy and well-being, which is important for children who are hospitalized long-term, as is sometimes the case for patients with CHD.

Kristina Cabey is mom to 1-year-old Jaxx, one of my patients in the CICU at the Heart Center. Kristina and her son were transferred to Texas Children’s in Oct. 2020 and have been here ever since. Her son, who was born with a life-threatening congenital heart condition with no alternative therapy other than a heart transplant, has been an inpatient all his life. As you can imagine, being in the hospital for over a year can take its toll. She says the Books@Heart Program has allowed her family to focus their minds on something else for a while and bond with their sweet boy.

“Being in the hospital can be overwhelming,” Kristina said. “Reading books to Jaxx helped break up the day and gave us a chance to bond and escape to a world outside of hospital walls. After our son received his heart transplant at Texas Children’s in February of this year, I couldn’t hold him for a while because he was intubated and on ECMO. I continued to read to him so he could hear my voice and drown out the constant beeping of the monitors. It also helped me feel like I was still doing a little something for him even if I couldn’t hold him. The Hungry Caterpillar was definitely one of our favorite books during this difficult part of our journey. Jaxx also received his first medal and trophy during this time due to us reading to him, along with his nurses and therapists who read to him, too, which was a proud moment for Jaxx.”

The Books@Heart program has truly been a labor of love. There are so many people to thank: our Developmental Care Team (Dr. Justin Elhoff, Christina Burford and Hallie Clason) , our team of advanced practice providers (Ana Gomez, Stephanie Hill and Ginger Brown) and our wonderful nurses who have been championing this cause, as they are highly engaged and take great pride in making sure their patients are read to as much as possible. To see this idea emerge from a conversation Dr. Ruth and I had while on service in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) and blossom into the creation of a multi-disciplinary team to help us turn this vision into reality is so amazing. It also showed me how lucky we are to work in a place where everyone is so dedicated to the care of our patients.

The Books@Heart program is now launching its next phase as it seeks feedback from parents and families regarding the initiative, and is excited to become a part of truly wholesome and multi-system care for every infant in the Heart Center. Books@Heart invites collaborations, ideas, book suggestions, and questions from enthusiasts of reading and development throughout Texas Children’s and the community. Books@Heart is reachable by email at booksatheart@texaschildrens.org and more information (including a donation link) is available here. Click here to learn more about Texas Children’s Heart Center.