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Gina’s Heartfelt Journey with CHAoC: A Call to Volunteer

Meet Heart Mom and CHAoC Board Member Gina Menninger

What Motivated You to Volunteer Your Time with CHAoC?

When my son, Austin, was born with Hypoplastic Right Heart Syndrome and Tricuspid and Pulmonary Atresia—essentially “half a heart”—our world turned upside down. Navigating those early days was incredibly tough, but we found strength and support in the heart community. The love and encouragement we received during those dark times inspired me to give back. Now, I dedicate my time to the Congenital Heart Alliance of Cincinnati (CHAoC), hoping to provide the same lifeline to others in need.

Volunteering: Bringing the Heart Community Closer Together

Over the past year, my role in community outreach for the Cincinnati area and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center (CCHMC) families has been incredibly rewarding. Here are a few highlights of the events I’ve been involved in:

Heart and Sole 5K Walk Fundraiser

Every year, I lead the Heart and Sole 5K walk fundraiser at Miami Whitewater Forest. It’s a day of unity, hope, and celebration, where we raise nearly $30,000 with around 300-350 participants. Seeing so many people come together, sharing their stories and support, reminds me of the power of community. It’s more than just a walk; it’s a statement that no one is alone in their journey.

Holiday Toy Drive

One of my favorite events is our Holiday Toy Drive. We set up giving trees throughout Cincinnati to support CCHMC, and last year, we collected over 1,000 toys. These toys transform into smiles and joy during our toy shop event for inpatient families, who get to choose gifts for their loved ones and enjoy a warm holiday meal. It’s heartwarming to see the light in their eyes and know we’re making a difference during a challenging time.

Year-Round Support and Events

Beyond these major events, I also coordinate various gatherings throughout the year, such as Heart Week, photo shoots, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day events, Mom’s Night Out, Dad’s Night Out, the Summer Picnic, the Heart Hero Fall Festival, and our Holiday Event at the Zoo. Each event is a chance to bring heart families together, fostering connections and shared understanding. We also organize inpatient meals and educational events, ensuring continuous support for those in need.

Getting Involved: Your First Step

For anyone new to the CHAoC and heart community, the first step is simply reaching out. Our website has lots of information about upcoming events, and our Facebook page offers a glimpse into our vibrant community. Attend an event when you’re ready, or start by introducing yourself online. Every bit of involvement helps, whether you’re seeking support or looking to give it.

We always need more hands and hearts! Our biggest upcoming event is the Heart and Sole walk on September 21st at Miami Whitewater Forest from 8-12. It’s a wonderful opportunity to get involved, meet other families, and make a tangible difference.

Keep in mind that volunteering with CHAoC is a family affair! There are plenty of opportunities for kids and adults alike. Host an inpatient dinner at the hospital, organize a kit packing party, or collect toiletries for our care bags. During the holiday season, you can set up a giving tree or toy box to collect toys for our drive. Every act of kindness counts, and it’s a beautiful way to teach children the importance of giving back.

Join Us in Making a Difference

Gina’s journey with the Congenital Heart Alliance of Cincinnati is a testament to the power of community and the impact we can have when we come together. By volunteering your time, you’re not just supporting a cause—you’re changing lives. Join us by emailing, and let’s make the heart community stronger, one event at a time.

Swinging for Hearts: The Annual Golf Outing for the Congenital Heart Alliance of Cincinnati

As the sun rises over the rolling greens, there’s a palpable sense of excitement and camaraderie in the air. This isn’t just another day on the course; it’s the Annual Golf Outing for the Congenital Heart Alliance of Cincinnati, a day that brings together our community, our board, our doctors, and most importantly, our heart kids and their families.

Golf outing

A Journey from Humble Beginnings

When I joined the Board in 2012/13, we didn’t yet have any fund raising events on the golf course. The idea of hosting a golf outing was born from a need to raise awareness and bring our heart community closer together.  The primary goal was to introduce our organization to the community and enhance our marketing efforts. The first few years were about laying the groundwork – developing posters, banners, brochures, and all the materials that would help tell our story.  The heart of this event lies in its ability to bring our mission to life. It’s about community outreach, fostering connections between board members and doctors, and sharing our mission with a broader audience. Over the years, we’ve grown from a small gathering to an anticipated event with over 30 foursomes signing up. Attendees return year after year, not just for the golf but for the sense of community and the fun atmosphere we strive to create.

Golf outing

A Personal Connection

My son Gabe, a heart kid himself, was an avid golfer and a member of the Mason High golf team. With his passion for the game and my familiarity with local courses, it felt natural to plan a golf outing. Gabe also caddied at Heritage during the summers, which allowed me to forge a strong relationship with the golf pro there. This year marks our 8th annual event, a testament to the hard work and dedication of everyone involved.

The Power of Volunteers and Sponsors

Our success is largely due to the incredible team of volunteers who pour their hearts into this event and the sponsors whose generous contributions keep this event going year after year. Sponsorships are crucial for covering event costs and ensuring we can continue to host such a memorable day. When our volunteers prepare for the event, each volunteer has specific roles and responsibilities.  We have everything very organized both leading up to and during the outing, so that our entire volunteer group can function like a well-oiled machine. We are so appreciative of these volunteers and there’s always room for more hands and hearts in this mission!



A Day to Remember

One of the most cherished aspects of the outing is seeing the golfers interact with the heart kids and hearing their stories. The doctors from the Heart Institute love attending, and it’s become a staple on their calendars.

For me, the highlight of the event is the dinner. It’s a time when everyone – board members, golfers, families, and doctors – comes together in a social setting. It’s a moment to reflect on the day’s successes, share stories, and simply enjoy each other’s company.

Whether you’re a long-time supporter or a newcomer, we invite you to join us on the greens. Together, we’re swinging for hearts and making a difference in the lives of so many.

See you on the course!

Zerlina Dubois

President of the Board of Trustees for CHAoC

Community Spotlight – Meet Heart Mom and CHAoC Board Member Stephanie!

Stephanie, a devoted mom to a thriving almost 7-year-old daughter, embodies resilience and compassion. Her daughter’s critical congenital heart defect (CHD) diagnosis initially set her into a world of grief and trauma. Navigating through the labyrinth of medical terms and uncertainties, Stephanie found solace in the Heart Community of Cincinnati. This newfound support system of parents sharing similar journeys was a beacon of hope, offering her a sense of belonging and understanding. Today, Stephanie channels her experiences into volunteering with the Congenital Heart Alliance of Cincinnati (CHAoC), striving to ensure that no family faces the CHD journey alone.

From Heartache to Helping Hands: Stephanie‘s Motivation

Stephanie‘s motivation to volunteer with CHAOC is deeply personal. She recalls the relief and comfort she felt upon discovering the Heart Community. The connection with other parents who truly understood her struggles was therapeutic, helping her to cope with her daughter’s diagnosis. “I finally felt heard and not alone,” Stephanie shares. This profound impact inspired her to give back, spreading awareness about CHD and supporting other families navigating similar paths. Through CHAOC, Stephanie found a platform to reach out, educate, and connect with heart families, making a tangible difference in their lives.

Building a Stronger Community: Events and Experiences

In the past year, Stephanie has taken on a leadership role in community outreach for CHAoC. She helped plan the annual golf event and leads the Heart and Sole Walk fundraiser each year. Beyond these major events, Stephanie coordinates a myriad of activities aimed at fostering community spirit and support. From Heart Week and Mother’s Day celebrations to summer picnics and holiday events at the zoo, her efforts bring heart families together, providing much-needed outlets and support networks.

One of her cherished experiences is the Heart Hero Fall Festival, where families gather to celebrate their little heroes in a fun, relaxed setting. She speaks warmly of the connections formed at these events, emphasizing how they strengthen the heart community and offer families a sense of normalcy and joy amidst their challenges.

Getting Involved: A Welcoming Community Awaits

For those new to CHAOC, Stephanie advises starting with a social event or fundraiser to meet other heart families. “If that is too much at first, just reach out and join our online CHD Heart Families of Greater Cincinnati,” she suggests. The organization’s Facebook page and website are rich resources for information and support options, providing a gentle entry point into the community.

Upcoming Events: Join the Heart Family

Stephanie eagerly shares upcoming events where volunteers are needed. The Summer Picnic on June 21 is a perfect opportunity for those wanting to get involved. Volunteers are needed to set up, serve dinner, and clean up, ensuring a smooth and enjoyable experience for all attendees. Looking ahead, the Heart and Sole Walk in September requires a larger volunteer force to assist with various tasks throughout the event.

Additionally, CHAOC frequently organizes kit-packing parties for inpatient kits delivered to the hospital, welcoming families and children to participate. “It’s definitely possible to volunteer as a family,” Stephanie affirms. These opportunities not only contribute to a great cause but also foster a spirit of giving and empathy among children.

Ways to Contribute: Every Effort Counts

For those unable to volunteer time, Stephanie highlights the need for donations, such as toiletries for inpatient kits or toys for the holiday toy drive for CCHMC CICU. Sponsors and volunteers for social and fundraising events are always welcomed, as every contribution helps enhance the support system for heart families.

In Stephanie’s journey, we see the transformation of personal heartache into a mission of hope and community. Her dedication to CHAOC not only uplifts other families but also exemplifies the power of collective support and understanding. Through her efforts, Stephanie ensures that no one walks the CHD journey alone, fostering a resilient and compassionate heart community in Cincinnati.


I am Danielle … I happen to have a heart defect.

On December 1st 1985, I was born as a classic ‘blue baby,’ diagnosed shortly after birth with Ebstein’s Anomaly (a defect of the tricuspid valve). Throughout my childhood I was much slower than my peers, becoming cyanotic ‘blue’ and short of breath easily. I had never met anyone else with a heart condition as a child and thought I was meant to be different. Like so many other patients, different was my normal. Although my physical ability was limited, it did not stop me from experiencing life. I credit this to my parents. While overprotective, they also knew if I had my mind set on something I was hard to reason with. So, even though I was always picked last or the worst player of whatever game or sport I was interested in, I still participated (if only to be able to hang out with my friends). Not until I was an adult did I have an appreciation of how significant my heart condition was, and how it will always impact every aspect of my life.

After being fairly ‘normal’ during my childhood and teens, I became symptomatic when I was a senior in high school. I had my first surgery when I was four and did not remember any details. Throughout my life I had been hospitalized several times, undergone a number of caths, and other minor procedures (and I thought this would be all I had to deal with). When I was 18, I found out that my tricuspid valve was failing and the medication I had taken for ten years was not helping me anymore. It was advised that I have another valve replacement. At this point, I was in the middle of classes at art school and had to quit, indefinitely. During the initial surgery I went into complete heart block and had to have a pacemaker placed to keep my heart beating. This time in my life was extremely psychologically difficult. Out of sheer boredom, and to ease the psychological burden, I returned to work two weeks after I was discharged from surgery. Shortly after returning to work, I met the person who is now my husband.

Prior to my surgery, I was informed I would have a bio prosthetic valve originating from a cow. The use of animals in research fascinated me and I wanted to be able to give back to the animal(s) who not only gave me a second chance at life but who service us as research, working, and companion animals. With a push from my then boyfriend (now husband), I redirected my education from photography to veterinary technology.

Fast-forward several years, as I write this I am now 30, I accomplished my intention to work with research animals at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. I am able to care for aquatic animals, who help researchers discover the genetic aspect of congenital heart defects.

“I am so thankful that I have been able to come full circle and I am able to participate, in some small way, in giving back to the research animals and other patients.”

Between the ages of 18 and 30 I had two more valve replacements and a new pacemaker. During this time, I have found something that has truly helped me through any hard time — my voice. As a very shy, meek child my grandmother asked me recently, “Where did you learn how to speak up?” I credit this to the wonderful heart families I have met who were the first to encourage me and validate that my story mattered. The past seven years I have participated in several congenital heart defect-related, non-profit organizations that have given me the courage to share my story. I have met other patients and families who have not only become close friends but inspire and push me to continue advocating for those with CHDs. Through meeting these beautiful families, I realize how fortunate I am.

Many congenital heart patients lost their battle far too early. I keep a picture of a heart angel, Emily, in my locker at work to remind me on the hardest days, why I come to work, and that I have no excuse to give up. Through my work with several different organizations, I have found a special interest in adult congenital heart defect (ACHD) advocacy. Due to advancements in medicine, treatments, and surgical innovations made possible by research, ACHD has a continuously growing number of patients. There are now more adults living with congenital heart defects than children. Living with CHDs impacts several aspects of an adult’s life. The majority of congenital heart defect-related organizations’ goals are to raise money to support research, which will extend patients’ lives. Once a patient reaches adulthood, there is very little support for them compared to pediatric patients. ACHD patients become lost to care, because they believe, or were told, they were ‘fixed’ as a child. This misconception can be extremely detrimental by dissuading patients to stay in contact with a ACHD specialist.

I work closely with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital ACHD specialists to provide education, peer support, medical referrals/resources, social events, and community outreach opportunities. One of the most crucial types of support is peer-based. Speaking with another patient who has gone through the same struggles and triumphs as you is something that cannot be clinically duplicated. Knowing you are not alone is a truly sustaining comfort. Peer-based support can also encourage patients to seek appropriate medical care by facilitating patient-to-patient referrals. With the help of some awe-inspiring ACHD patients, we have formed a peer-based support and educational program, Adult CHD Survivors of Cincinnati. Our group hosts educational meetings with medical professionals, provides opportunities to socialize, and encourages participation in fundraisers and community events. More recently, we are thankful to partner with the Children’s Heart Association of Cincinnati (renamed Congenital Heart Alliance of Cincinnati in 2020) to be able to support more patients and families. The summer of 2016 marked the first Adult Congenital Heart Disease Patient Camp. Thanks to the CHAoC, in partnership with the Cincinnati Children’s Adolescent and Adult Congenital Heart Disease Clinic, we were able to provide 24 adult patients a day of adventure, education, and the opportunity to meet and socialize with other patients.

If asked if I wish I was born without a congenital heart defect, I would say no. My heart condition has given me first-hand knowledge and the opportunity to serve others. The amazing, courageous, and kind people I have met through my journey, and the opportunities I have had, completely outweigh the struggles and uncertainty I have living with a CHD. Every day I wake up, I am thankful; each new day brings an opportunity to make a difference and to support and love others.

I try not to live through my heart condition — to remember I am not a congenital heart defect patient named Danielle. I am Danielle — someone who happens to have a heart defect. Since my heart condition and I are in it together, I might as well make the most of it.

Callie’s Story

Meet Callie! She is a smart, confident, energetic, eight-year-old girl who loves laughing with friends, dancing, performing in theatre productions, and playing soccer. To see her today, you would never believe her challenging start. Callie was born without a wall between her left and right ventricle (the two pumping chambers of the heart). She spent many weeks of her first three months of life in the hospital and at doctor appointments, before having her first surgery at three months of age (Glenn Surgery). After that surgery Callie thrived, even though it was known that a second surgery would be necessary around age four (Fontan Surgery) to complete the fix of her congenital heart birth defect. Callie was a champ through her second surgery, thanks to her determination and the amazing and caring staff of Cincinnati Children’s Heart Institute. She likes to tell those who ask her about her open-heart surgery scar that it is part of “her story.” Thanks to the team at CCHMC Callie is living a “happily ever after.”

Meghan Roswick asks, “GOT HLHS?”

“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” —Gandhi

When you are born into a world with the odds stacked against you, you have two ways of looking at it: you can either let it consume you, or face it head on.

My story begins at seven days old, when I was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect called Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome. HLHS is a lethal malformation of the heart where the left side is so severely underdeveloped that it does not function. My parents were told that the chances of me having a good quality of life were so slim that it was suggested my parents go the route of compassionate care and let me die peacefully. My parents did not accept that option. They looked for other options and found Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia performing a set of experimental, open-heart surgeries that would re-route my circulatory system, so my body could function with only the right side of my heart. I was born in upstate NY, so Philadelphia was not too far away. I was immediately taken to Philadelphia and underwent my first open-heart surgery, called the Norwood, at nine days old. I underwent the hemi-fontan at seven months old and my fontan at 13 months old. After my family and doctors thought I was out of the woods, I went into congestive heart failure at two-and-a-half-years old and underwent my fourth open-heart surgery to open my ASD. After that, it was full steam ahead. My parents were originally told that they should channel my energies into the arts because the likelihood I would be able to participate in sports with half of a heart was very slim. My surgeon had told my parents to let me set my own limits and that is just what they did.

I began gymnastics at three-and-a-half-years old after asking my mom if I could start classes. After my parents had a conversation with my surgeon on the risks, I began training and continued on as a high level competitive gymnast for 14 years. After suffering a career-ending injury, I turned to high school sports to fulfill my competitive nature. I never considered my heart a handicap. I played high school soccer, track and field, ski racing, and participated in freestyle skiing. I have always enjoyed pushing the limits and exceeding what doctors thought I had been capable of. I kept reaching milestones and my heart was at “rock star” function as the cardiologists liked to say.

May of 2015, I was at lunch with my father at the root beer Stand off Kemper Road in Cincinnati when all of the sudden I lost feeling on my right side, and actually bit my hand on accident while eating. I looked ahead and saw everything swirling and as I turned to my dad I lost the ability to form words. I looked him straight in the eyes, with fear in my own, as I was just babbling like a baby. It didn’t take long to for me to be able to speak again but I had known what just happened. I just had a stroke. I was rushed to the hospital where it was confirmed. Just a few days prior I was studying calculus and now I was no longer able to do simple math. This was my biggest moment of reflection that I had ever had in my life. It took almost a year to begin feeling back to “Meghan.” The confidence and faith I had in myself was tested every step of the way.

As I write this, at 24 years old, I am just about to start back up at University of Cincinnati, studying Neuroscience. Along with my bachelors, I am also undergoing classes to get my phlebotomy certificate by January. As for work, I am coaching where I used to train at Cincinnati Gymnastics Academy as the team level four, floor coach. Aside from coaching, I am a patient advocate and focus on the needs in cardiac transitional care. I travel and speak at different events and medical conferences on the patient perspective of hospital care, as well as the importance of self-advocacy. I am seen at CCHMC yearly in the ACHD clinic, however, I usually end up in the ER a few times a year aside from my one visit. My cardiologist is Dr. Gruschen Veldtman.

Throughout my life, I have had the opportunity to have a multitude of moments of reflection after being faced with the constant reality of death. For my entire life, hospitalizations, cardiac procedures, doctor’s visits, and numerous tests have been a big part of my life. I have had moments where I am scared I won’t walk out of the hospital, or that this will be the cardiology visit where they tell me that my heart is failing.

“It is very easy to make my heart my identity, but it is not. My heart defect and strokes are a part of what makes me who I am; it is not all that I am. However, I am grateful for these experiences because I feel I truly understand the meaning of life and really living. To me, quality of life is not determined by your physical ability, it is determined by how you choose to live your life.”

I choose to live my life by jumping out of airplanes and taking cross-country road trips with only 36 hours of planning time. I choose to drive to Colorado by myself just to do a backflip off a ski jump. I choose to move to Oregon for a summer where I don’t know anyone just to spend my summer skiing. I choose to live a life full of taken-opportunities instead of missed chances. I choose to feel the adrenaline pumping through my veins because I want to experience life and redefine what quality of life truly is.

Don’t Miss Meghan Roswick’s HLHS Story Video

Meghan welcomes you to follow her on Facebook

Lindsey Greiwe — A Miracle Still Today

My name is Lindsey Greiwe and I was born May 3, 1993. I was diagnosed with Tricuspid Atresia ASD and VSD. The best way I can describe to you my heart condition is I have half a heart. My right side of the heart is connected to the left side, for it to do all the work (kind of like a reptile heart). I wasn’t supposed to live when I was an infant. The doctors told my mother and father that if they wanted to baptize their daughter they should do it now. The doctors explained to my parents I would most likely not be alive by morning, and that’s how I became my parents “Miracle Baby.” After they baptized me that night, my stats miraculously went up and I became stable.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had to deal with all kinds of surgeries with my heart growing up, but I have my family and God to thank for the reason I have been so positive with my condition and grateful each day. My parents never let my heart condition get in the way of my dreams. I come from a family who loves sports; I played every sport and never made up an excuse with my heart condition. My father coached me through most of my life and I remember one practice in particular that I’ll never forget. He said, “Heart problem or no heart problem, don’t make excuses in life, and don’t let your challenges in life hold you back.” I’ll never forget that lesson and from there I never once made an excuse for my heart condition and acted like it wasn’t even there. I played sports and never once complained, making coaches sometimes unknowledgeable that I even had a heart condition.

At the age of 20, I went into heart failure, and was diagnosed with diastolic dysfunction of the heart. This was a very hard setback for me at the time. Doctors explained to me I could no longer be that athlete that pushed through the pain no matter what. I had to accept that I had limits now, and if I didn’t follow these limitations that I would put myself right back into heart failure by exceeding a certain heart rate. I was devastated and never thought I’d be as “athletic” in my mind again. However, I simply remembered what my father and mother taught me about when faced with challenges and not to let them set me back. The journey to recover was underway.

As I write this, I am 22 years old, and finally “normal” in my own thinking, when it comes to my heart problem. I worked up to doing 20-30 minutes on the elliptical and almost 20 minutes on the treadmill, but not exceeding my limits given to me by my cardio rehab therapists. I ran my first 10k Turkey Day Race this Thanksgiving and finished at 01:33:47.

“I am very proud of myself for how far I have come with my heart and am very grateful for having wonderful role models in my life, to tell me not to let my condition hold me back.”

I am blessed, in a way, that I do have a heart condition. Yeah, I know that sounds weird. But it’s made me face things in life that no one else has truly faced. Don’t get me wrong, if I could have a perfect heart in a second I’d take it. But having my heart condition has taught me that life is so precious, and in just one simple day everything can turn your world upside down. If that happens though, I know I’ll be just fine. And not a lot of people can say that.

Justin is Our Heart Hero, too

My name is Justin. I’m 12 now and I’ve got one funky heart! My mom and sister say I am their Heart Hero and everything I have to go through makes me stronger and will change the outcome of other kids like me. I love my doctors at CCHMC. They have saved my life so many times! It’s almost my favorite place in the world to go — because I am getting help and helping others at the same time.

My diagnosis includes Tricuspid Atresia, D-Transposition of the Great Arteries, VSD, ASD, Mitral Regurgitation, NeoAortic insufficiency, Fontan associated liver disease (Cirrhosis), ADD and, Muscular incoordination. I know this sounds like a lot, but I am rocking my half a heart! All of these diagnoses are related to my complex congenital heart defect. I have had three open-heart surgeries, multiple heart caths, an appendectomy, and a few other surgeries! It has been difficult living with this many medical issues. I spend a lot of time at the hospital and I have to miss school and other fun things because of my heart, but that’s ok because I was born special to help other kids just like me!

My Heart doesn’t define who I am. I love to race, go fishing, ride my quad, camp with my family, and play with my friends, especially Ryder because he doesn’t treat me different. There are many unknowns about my heart defect and cirrhosis, and that makes it a little scary.

“I would like to find a cure for heart defects so other kids don’t have to feel sad their entire lives, and go through all the surgeries I have had to. If I could give my half a heart to save someone, I would because I don’t want them to hurt anymore.”

I hope my story touches your heart, and you do your part to save a heart. Please make a difference!

Little Annie’s Heartwarming Story

During a routine doctor visit on March 9th of 2012, we were told that we might have some health issues with the baby we were expecting in July, 2012. We were informed that there might be a number of issues after his/her arrival.

Our family received our little blessing, Annie, on June 15th and we received confirmation shortly after her birth that she did, in fact, have a number of issues with her little heart (which ultimately required corrective surgery a little over 1 year ago). Annie was diagnosed with Atrial Septal Defect (A.S.D.) and Ventrical Septal Defect (V.S.D.), along with a Cleft Mitral Valve on the left side of her heart (which regulates the proper blood flow within the heart). She was later diagnosed with regurgitation with her tricuspid valve, which is located on the right side of her heart.

She had her first open-heart surgery at a year and a half of age. She recovered remarkably fast. As I write this, she is now two-and-a-half-years old and is a beautiful little girl. We still have our daily struggles of OT, PT, speech, and feeding, but she loves to play with her two older brothers and does not have a problem standing up for herself and telling everyone “mo” (“no”). There’s more than likely another surgery in her future, but we will cross that bridge when we come to it. Right now, we are enjoying every moment and accomplishment she makes – no matter how big or small. She has a smile and a laugh that just lights up the room. The doctor appointments and echocardiograms will follow her for the rest of her life, but she is full of life thanks to many at CCHMC and other fine organizations supporting our family.

Gabe Says, “Never Give Up”

I’ve never let anything stop me before. I’ve battled my boat, the weather, and my partners, and I always come out on top. I end up at a lake, casting a line, and enjoying life. No ten-pound weight limit is going to keep me from fishing. I’ll design a new tackle box. I’ll cut out the fabric; I’ll combine packages; I’ll downsize my baits; I’ll make this tackle box weigh 9.98 pounds, and I’m going to go fishing. I’m going to fish until I can’t fish anymore, and then, I’m going to enter the Rocky Fork Lake Fishing Tournament, the one my cardiologist, Dr. Kimball, says I will never be able to fish. I’m not giving up.

“My first open-heart surgery takes place when I am only five months old. My pulmonary valve is replaced, and a hole in the muscle of my heart is patched up. I recover very well, and go on living my life like an ordinary kid. But as I grow, my valve grows differently, and at age seventeen I am told that I need a second surgery. I will be in the hospital for a week, and out of commission for at least six weeks. I know that it has to be done, but all I can think is, how am I going to survive for six weeks without fishing?”

We set the date for May 21st. This works in my favor in many ways. I can take my finals a little bit early and not miss much school from the surgery. Plus, I can compete in a fishing tournament on May 5th, no problem. But there is one thing that I can’t accept. Three weeks after the surgery, the Rocky Fork Lake Fishing Tournament is scheduled, and Dr. Kimball insists that I‘m not going to be able to fish it. He empathetically says, “I’m sorry, Gabe, but you don’t have a good chance of recovering in time,” but all I hear in my head is, “Gabe, you have a chance of recovering in time.” If I am going to do this, I have to buckle down, and work hard.

I spend the night before my surgery designing a new tackle box. After the operation, I will have a ten-pound weight limit, and my current tackle box weighs about forty-five pounds. I remove only the bare essentials, and put them in a small backpack. I weigh the backpack, and see 13.27 pounds. I resort to drastic measures. Pulling out my knife, I cut away all the unnecessary fabric from this backpack. I take several packages of soft plastics and start cramming them into one package. I even take out my bigger, four-inch square, bill crank baits, and replace them with two-inchers. Weighing the box again, I see 9.98 pounds. Jackpot! Now I’m ready to have surgery.

I wake up on May 21st after six hours on the operating table, and I am exhausted. I see my parents at my bedside and I ask, “Is it over already?” All my ribs have been cut open, and it feels like a thousand tiny needles are stabbing me in the chest every time I move. I am so thirsty, but I am only allowed to have a few measly ice chips. I can tell that this is not gonna be easy.

Three brutal weeks of bed rest, pain killers, and breathing tubes all comes down to this one moment. My jaw hits the floor when I walk into Dr. Kimball’s office and hear four sweet words. “Gabe, you can fish.” Even though he only allows me to fish four hours of the eight-hour tournament, I catch three bass, including one big kicker with my trademark Roboworm. With a final weight of 4.46 pounds, I win the tournament. A satisfied smile spreads across my face as I release my winning bass and place my lure back into my new tackle box.

Since Gabe wrote this article 10 years ago, he has been a thriving heart hero and currently resides in Colorado.  Gabe earned a degree in Journalism at the University of Missouri and has pursued a successful career in photography and video editing. You can check out some of his recent work on his website!  He never gave up his love of fishing and has a very active life style in Denver! He enjoys skiing, rock climbing, golf, fishing, and he even still competes in recreational ice hockey league.

Gabe has yearly appointments to check on his heart valve from his surgery in 2012.  He knows that at some point this valve will need to be replaced but he hasn’t let that get in the way of his dreams, his creativity, and his passion for living life to the fullest!