The inspiring story of TJ Olsen shows the importance of organ donation

Greg and Kara Olsen faced the unthinkable this month when they announced their son TJ would require a heart transplant at the age of eight. A boy who had been through so much since his life began in 2012 now faced his most difficult challenge.

This past weekend Olsen posted that a donor had been found for their boy. He was rushed into emergency surgery to perform the transplant, and on Monday a brief video was posted showing TJ in recovery.

The bravery displayed by a child, and the grace of his parents, is unimaginable. That’s a big, over-used word “unimaginable,” but I cannot think of one that fits better. No scenario exists in which I can fathom being strong if my little girl needed to go through half the medical procedures that TJ did. The idea that something was happening I have no control over is impossible to comprehend. That the little girl who still has the idyllic view that her parents can do anything would have to tell her “there’s nothing we can do.” Even thinking about it now brings me to tears, and that’s not a reality I live in.

There’s a lesson to be learned from TJ: not just in life, but how we confront mortality. Both ours, and others around us. It’s finality none of us want to talk about, pushing it to the recesses of our mind where we stash anything in our life we are too fragile to deal with. Today we look at TJ’s story, but also how we can change our lives to adapt to situations like this in the future.

TJ Olsen’s story

Football was the furthest thing from Greg Olsen’s mind in October 2012. The tight end, had an incredible start to the season coming off his first year in Carolina, but his biggest test was coming off the field.

Kara Olsen was pregnant with twins. The couple learned early in the pregnancy that their son TJ was going to be born with a congenital heart defect known as “Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome,” a grouped term for a number of potential defects in which the heart is unable to pump oxygen-rich blood to the body. A condition which requires surgical intervention, and in extreme cases even transplant.

Panthers fans, and the city of Charlotte rallied around the Olsens after hearing the news. A rookie tradition in Carolina had been having players dress up as super heroes and comic book characters and visiting kids at The Levine Children’s Hospital, but this was the first time one of the team’s own needed the hospital so critically.

The importance of that 2012 season heightened. Olsen was playing not just for the Panthers, but for TJ. The result was one of the most heartening in recent memory, with each week’s score mattering to fans, but not nearly as much as hanging on every update released on TJ’s condition.

Multiple surgeries later, it was announced that TJ would be okay. Instead of being happy his child was out of the woods, and returning to business as usual, Greg and Kara turned their son’s illness into a point of strength. They launched “The HEARTest Yard,” the brainchild of Kara who realized the at-home care TJ required following his surgeries, and the suite of medical needs were utterly unattainable for those who weren’t privileged enough to have an NFL salary in their home.

Partnering with Levine Children’s Hospital, The HEARTest Yard provides funds, support, and specialized treatment plans for everyone, regardless of income. It ensures every child facing similar issues to TJ gets the same level of care, removing the unthinkable barrier for people without the means to pick the best possible care for their children without the crippling financial burden that would come with it.

Since its inception the program has expanded beyond at-home care. Now pivoting into adolescent care, it provides support to children who faced brutal medical issues, and ensures they don’t see lasting effects into adulthood. Typically children who are diagnosed with life-threatening conditions in childhood experience cognitive and learning difficulties beyond their physical diagnosis . The HEARTest Yard follows children beyond being “cleared,” providing cognitive and learning support into adulthood.

It’s unquestionably one of the best charities a former NFL player has been involved in.

Unfortunately, TJ’s struggles continued

On May 24th Greg Olsen announced that despite having years of relative health, TJ was facing another challenge.

This past week has been exceptionally challenging for our family. As many of you know, our son TJ has faced serious heart issues since birth. TJ has already undergone 3 open heart surgeries and has survived with a modified heart for his first 8 years of life. Unfortunately, it seems his heart is reaching its end. We are currently working through the process to determine our next steps, which ultimately could lead to a heart transplant.

We are so thankful for the incredible support we have received over the years. We have received world class care at Levine Children’s Hospital and we are so appreciative of their amazing team. We don’t know how long we will be within these hospital walls. We do know that we are in full control of our attitudes and our outlook.

TJ has been a fighter since birth. We are going to get through this as a family and be better off as a result of this experience.

Thanks for everyone’s prayers.

The Olsen Family

The community that rallied around the Olsens in 2012 was still there. Even though Greg was no longer on the Panthers, the love the community had for his family remained. Area businesses poured out their support, youth games honored TJ, Bank of America Stadium was lit up green for a night in honor of the young boy.

Dreams soon became reality. A donor was found for TJ. The 8-year-old was given a new lease on life, but with it came a sober reminder that in order for one person to triumph, another was dealing with tragedy. Greg Olsen still doesn’t know where his son’s donor heart came from, a factor of how the anonymity of the process, but asked the world to think of them, wherever they are.

We also want to ask that everyone takes a second to pray for our donor family. Their selflessness during a tragic time gave our boy a chance at life. We don’t know who they are, but we will forever be grateful for everyday we get to have with Tj

❤️ Olsen Family

— Greg Olsen (@gregolsen88) June 4, 2021

TJ Olsen still has a long road ahead while he recovers, but he now has a chance to truly live without the cloud of his illness looming. One story may end here, but it goes far, far beyond that.

The importance of being an organ donor

I never knew my aunt Rochelle very well. She was one of those people who’s called “aunt” by osmosis, a familial relationship so convoluted and complex it’s easier to say aunt than whatever the technical term on a family tree is. I didn’t meet her until I was 10 years old, when she was already sick.

Rochelle was young, too young to need something as complex as a heart and lung transplant — but a routine checkup discovered that at the age of 39 she had congenital issues that required intervention. Rochelle and my uncle Michael moved from Western Australia to Sydney to check in long-term to one of Australia’s best hospitals, where she would have round-the-clock care, and the best chance at getting a transplant.

My school was within walking distance from the hospital. My mom would pick me up, we’d walk over and see Rochelle every day. When I was young I thought we were bothering her. She always seemed so tired, and exhausted to even open her eyes. I later learned that this was the most energy she could muster all day, that the highlight of her hospital room-confined life was seeing her 10-year-old nephew. A brief respite from the crushing reality around her. She’d ask what I did in school, I’ll fill her in on every detail, each joke I made, what I’d learned. Her eyes would light up, and a smile would creep across her face.

Sometimes I’d complain about going to the hospital. The way any kid would after being asked to do something every day. My mom explained how whatever issues I had with it were completely outweighed by the joy I brought Rochelle. I didn’t really get it, but also I did.

I’d be lying if I said I had a good grip on the severity of the situation. All I knew was that Rochelle needed a new heart AND new lungs. On a few occasions a doctor would call my uncle Michael out of room and tell him they’d found a heart, or they’d found lungs — but were waiting to see if another donor emerged to complete the puzzle. Michael would return to the room, equal parts joyful, and self loathing. One the one hand he was excited they got one step closer, then he hated himself for being put in a position where he hoped someone else might die to make the love of his life whole.

This process dragged on for months. Sometimes there was a heart. Maybe there were lungs. Never at the same time, never both when needed. Rochelle continued to deteriorate. Our visits grew shorter. She wasn’t able to smile like she once did.

Then, one day, we stopped visiting. Rochelle’s fight was over.

When my mom asked the doctor he said she was first on the donor list for heart, second for lungs — and hadn’t moved in a month. Less than half the people who died on the east coast of Australia during her battle were registered organ donors. It’s here I learned about the importance of the process.

A 2019 study showed that over 90 percent of Americans support the idea of organ donation, but only 54 percent are registered donors. This could be due to religious beliefs, forgetting to fill out the form when you get your driver’s license, or a product of not wanting to face our own mortality — but we need to be better.

Donating your organs is the single easiest, most altruistic act any person can possibly make. Literally being able to save lives with there being absolutely no price. Yes, obviously you will have died, but donating organs has no bearing on that process. It’s simply giving away things you can no longer use — yet we’re afraid to do it.

I understand the process is scary. It makes death real. It forces us to imagine a world that continues when we don’t exist in it. However, imagine how it must feel to the families of those needing organ donations to imagine living in a world without their loved ones?

You can remedy this almost immediately. Go to OrganDonor.gov, sign up as a donor, and tell your family your decision. That’s all that’s required. Imagine all the time we waste on the internet each day. Here’s 10 minutes that can literally save a life, maybe even more. The final selfless act any person can make to completely alter the lives of people you may never meet, but who your generosity will impact forever.

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