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An agonizing wait. A prayer answered.

Dad's successful transplant a heartwarming story for Butler volleyball player

By Cliff Mehrtens
cmehrtens@charlotteobserver.com

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Ashley Aspenwall tensed every time the school intercom buzzed, or her cell phone rang.

Was this the call? Am I ready ?

Aspenwall, a Butler High volleyball setter, played last season under an emotional cloud. In September, early in the season, her dad Tom, 47, went on the waiting list for a heart transplant.

Tom, 26 years earlier, had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure. He had battled fatigue, nausea and shortness of breath for a long time.

His health was slipping quickly.

Ashley would be in class, or at a volleyball practice or match and her mind would nervously wander. The season rolled on, but she just “wasn't herself,” coach John Brannon said.

“It was so hard seeing my dad not being able to walk around much without getting really tired,” Aspenwall said. “He'd stop halfway up a flight of stairs to catch his breath. He did his best to come to games, but sometimes it was very hard on him.”

In November, the call came as Aspenwall was heading to a Butler football game.

Hurry home. It's going to happen in the next few hours, she was told.

“My mom was freaking out, but I just remember thinking it was in the Lord's hands,” Aspenwall said. “I wasn't really worried, I was more excited that he was going to get better.”

The transplant was a success. Four days later, her dad was exercising and felt better than he had in two decades. This season – Ashley's senior year – he and wife Karen are fixtures in the stands.

Butler (4-0) will host Providence at 5:30p.m. today. Last season's stress is gone.

“I know it's a ton off her mind,” Tom said. “She was worried, of course, but she'd talk to her mom about it for the straight answers. Volleyball was good for me because it took my mind off things.”

Not for very long. A few times, he had to adjust where he sat at away games so his cell phone reception remained clear.

Aspenwall works as a fitness instructor at the Siskey YMCA and he does cardiovascular exercises five times weekly.

“It is such a relief to know his life is so much better,” said Ashley, the youngest of three children. “He goes to the Y, and he's so excited about our volleyball season. We're really close. Super close. He loves helping me with volleyball.”

Brannon compared a volleyball setter to a football quarterback – nearly every play runs through them. He sees a vibrant Ashley directing the ball around the court.

“For obvious reasons, I can see that a burden has been lifted from her shoulders,” he said. “She is smiling on the court, is focused in workouts and practice, and appears to be much more relaxed.”

Ashley, no longer jumpy at every phone ring, latched onto a leadership role in the offseason.

“I have never had to question her commitment level, and being able to say this of a setter in particular is quite a relief for a coach,” Brannon said. “I truly believe that the future holds great things for Ashley, and believe that she will be great at whatever she decides to do. She is a phenomenal young woman, and she has fantastic parents who love her very much.”

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