A heart transplant is always a second chance at life. For kids like Sarah Guy and TJ Olsen, it’s a second chance at childhood too.
Eleven-year-old Sarah Guy just wants to be a kid — a cartwheeling, bike-riding, sleepover-having kid.
Sarah was born with double outlet right ventricle. Almost all of her life, she’s come to Atrium Health Levine Children’s Hospital — named one of U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals for pediatric heart care — in Charlotte, North Carolina. Before the age of three, she had two open heart surgeries, multiple catheterizations, and stents put in. She bounced back, and by the fourth grade, Sarah was a competitive gymnast practicing up to eight hours a week.
When a routine cardiology visit revealed she was at risk of sudden cardiac death and needed a transplant, the Guys couldn’t believe it. “She was running around and playing. I never saw the physical things, but inside she wasn’t fine,” says Angie, Sarah’s mom.
Unlike adults, children with heart defects don’t always look sick. Instead of being slowed down by symptoms, their bodies learn to live with them. “Kids will compensate until they can’t anymore,” says Gonzalo Wallis, M.D., a pediatric cardiologist at Atrium Health Levine Children’s.
When Sarah collapsed at the mall, her family knew a transplant was the right call. They were ready to wait months for a heart, and Sarah’s cardiology team inserted a pacemaker to bridge the gap. But Levine Children’s Hospital has transplant waiting times shorter than the national average, and they only had to wait 16 days.
Sarah received her new heart on February 12, 2021, in time for Valentine’s Day, and she was cartwheeling around the house just nine weeks later.
“She’s back at it,” says Angie. “She’s ready to live her life.”
Keeping pace for kids
Even amid COVID-19, the Levine Children’s transplant program continued at full pace. In 2021 alone, they’ve performed 18 pediatric heart transplants — the most annual heart transplants in North Carolina history.
One of those patients was TJ Olsen, son of former Carolina Panthers player Greg Olsen. The Olsens have been visiting Levine Children’s since TJ was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome. They even helped establish the Levine Children’s HEARTest Yard Congenital Heart Center, as well as programs for in-home nursing and cardiac neurodevelopment. Over the years, TJ has undergone three open heart surgeries, and on June 4, he received his new heart.
But for kids like Sarah and TJ, a transplant is more than a new heart. It’s a second chance at life — and just being a kid.