GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - South Mississippians stepped up in the fight against heart disease. Thousands turned out for the annual Heart Walk in Gulfport Saturday morning.
At six-years-old, Mary Elizabeth "M.E." Hillanbrand has already traveled a difficult road. Her mother said M.E. was born with congenital heart disease.
"She had to have open heart surgery at birth and at six months and three-years-old," said Violet Hillanbrand. "We're walking to support the American Heart Association and everything they do. They've done a lot of research with the bypass machine and the heart and lung machine. All of those things have helped save her life during open heart surgery."
About 9,000 people came out to support the American Heart Association and the research the organization funds.
Chairperson William Yates said, "our goal for the Heart Association was $595,000. We're going to make that goal. We've already collected over $500,000 so we expect to actually exceed our goal. All of this money goes to the Heart Association to fight heart disease."
Some people walked in memory of those whose lives were cut short by heart disease.
"My grandmother was affected by heart disease. She died," said participant Tabitha Cole. "So it's one of those things that brings you back to-why you want to do something."
M.E.'s mother said her daughter is a reminder that miracles can happen.
"She's doing great. She's six years old and you could never tell that she's had three open heart surgeries. She just plays and has a lot of spunk just like any other six year old," Violet Hillanbrand said.
After the Heart Walk, participants gathered for at big celebration at Centennial Park in Gulfport.