HeartGift gives children life-saving surgeries


by JIM BERGAMO / KVUE News and photojournalist SCOTT GUEST

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Posted on January 12, 2014 at 11:50 PM

Updated Monday, Jan 13 at 12:00 AM

AUSTIN -- Imagine your child with a life threatening heart ailment, and no one where you live can treat it. That's the very real story that plays out in underdeveloped countries around the world.

Austin area doctors and the HeartGift Foundation make sure several children get that life-saving surgery.

Courtney Adalina Castillo can charm anyone in the room, including her mother.

"She's the love of my life," said Trisha Lopez, Courtney's mom.

Courtney just turned two years old, but a heart condition threatens future birthdays. Doctors say she's suffering from a severe narrowing of the pulmonary valve, which means the right side of her heart has to pump at a very high pressure to get blood across the valve out to the lungs. The problem grows worse with each passing day.

"The longer it's not taken care of, the greater the chance there's irreversible damage," said Stuart Rowe, M.D. a pediatric cardiologist. "The right side of the heart is now thickened and has to pump at such high pressure."

Rowe often works with the HeartGift Foundation, which provides life-saving heart surgery to children from developing countries.

Courtney and her family are from Belize. Her mother said there are no pediatric cardiologists there.  She said she was desperate after learning of her daughter's condition just a few months ago.

"Immediately when someone says there's something wrong with her heart, we all got alarmed," said Lopez. "We were crying. Where to go? What to do? There's nowhere to go and no one to see in Belize."

Lopez soon learned about HeartGift, and HeartGift learned about Courtney and agreed to bring her to Austin for surgery. 

The doctor's visits before the procedure and the recovery time afterward means Courtney and her mom will be in Austin for six weeks. That's where host families come in.

Reese Ryan and his wife, Alison, will serve as hosts. Ryan is best known as the CEO of Ryan-Sanders Baseball, which operates the Round Rock Express.

The Ryans have sponsored HeartGift families in the past, but this is the first time they'll serve as a host family.

For the next six weeks, the Ryans' home will be home to Courtney and her mom.

"It's something we wanted our girls to be a part of and be exposed to, and [it] was something that we felt we were called to do as a family," said Reese. "We kind of put ourselves in Trisha's shoes. If we lived in Belize, and we didn't have access to this surgery, and we knew this was a terminal illness for one of our children, that would be devastating."

"Just as a mother, it breaks your heart," said Alison. "I can really empathize with Trisha and what she's going through. Just even seeing them get off the plane. She was so nervous and scared.  Just all of those feelings. I just hugged her and let her know it's all going to be OK."

Lopez said she is overwhelmed at the warm reception she's already received from the Ryans, Courtney's doctors and everyone associated with HeartGift.

"It is everything," said Lopez.  "I mean, not even words can explain how thankful I am. "

She was asked if can fast forward and picture Courtney being able to run and play like a normal two year old? Lopez replied with a laugh, "Oh, it's going to be a handful."

Courtney will undergo her heart surgery at Dell Children's Medical Center.  If all goes well she and her mother will be back home in Belize about a month later.  

Go here for more information about the HeartGift Foundation.