You might not know her name yet, but this college-bound heart warrior is en fuego and has been through and accomplished more than anyone would expect of a teenager. Seventeen-year-old Puerto Rico native Paola Montilla — she goes by “Lola” — just received a $25,000 AXA Achievement Scholarship, becoming the first student in Puerto Rico to have ever received this level of award from the AXA foundation. (The scholarship also comes in increments of $2,500 and $10,000.) The AXA Achievement Scholarship is awarded to students who best embody the spirit of ambition in pursuit of projects or goals that are of benefit to society, especially in the context of risk reduction.
For Lola, risk reduction meant pushing for legislation in Puerto Rico that would help to save the lives of infants born with congenital heart defects. As an outspoken advocate for the CHD community, barely a teen, she undertook a successful campaign to require every hospital on the island to implement mandatory pulse oximetry screenings for newborns. The campaign turned into real legislation: “Ley Lola” passed unanimously in the Puerto Rico legislature in late 2014, many years before the screening became mandatory nationwide.
Lola, herself, is part of the CHD community with a rare condition called Ebstein anomaly. At the age of 12, she had to undergo open heart surgery in order to correct what was for her a life-threatening defect. The procedure left a significant scar down her chest, one that Lola has embraced as part of her life’s story. In fact, she blossomed into a “heart warrior” and published her book Beautiful Scars only a couple years later, hoping to inspire her peers within and without the CHD community to love their bodies for what they are.
“I wanted to share my story with the world because I know I am not alone,” wrote Lola about her heart story, explaining why she’s allowed herself to be so vulnerable about her condition and life experiences. “Ebstein’s Anomaly cases are 1 in 200,000 which is quite rare, but congenital heart defects are 1 in 100, and even when you are one of many with such an ailment when you are battling a life-threatening condition, you can feel pretty isolated, and alone.” She even has been open about her experiences with cyberbullying and has her sights aimed at the media and forums that willingly host online abuse.
Sharing her story, she hopes, reminds her peers that they are not alone. She continues to be a courageous leader in front of larger and larger audiences, stepping fearlessly into the role of public speaker in front of organizations like the American Heart Association; she’s even discussed CHD funding and research with Former First Lady Michelle Obama. We’re wishing her all the best as she dives headfirst into the challenges and light that life has in store for her.