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Carolina Panthers' TE Greg Olsen, wife act to aid families of pediatric heart patients

After his newborn son spent his first month in pediatric intensive care with a congenital heart defect, Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said taking him home was a little nerve-wracking.

“The first night I made him his formula, we almost had to take him back to the hospital because I thought I was going to hurt him,” Olsen said.

Olsen and his wife, Kara, hired a nurse who lived with them for four months and helped out with TJ, who was born in October with hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS), a condition that affects normal blood flow through the heart.

At each of TJ's checkups, doctors marveled at how well TJ was eating and growing. The Olsens attributed it to the extra set of hands at home while TJ awaited his second surgery.

“We said, ‘Fortunately, we were able to provide this for ourselves. But what if we could provide this for everybody, regardless of their situation, no questions asked. No insurance, nothing. If they need it, we'll provide it to them for free,'.” Olsen said.

What followed were a series of meetings with hospital executives, sit-downs with corporate sponsors and a charity golf tournament – capped by a $289,325 gift from Olsen's foundation to the Levine Children's Hospital.

The donation, announced at a press conference Friday in Levine's atrium, will go toward helping families of pediatric heart patients pay for in-home care, physical therapy and speech therapy after they leave the hospital.

Olsen said the gift will cover the in-home costs for the 25 babies born with HLHS and other single-ventricle defects at Levine each year. He hopes to extend the HEARTest Yard Fund to include families of all pediatric heart patients, and eventually branch out to other area hospitals.

Children born with HLHS face three surgeries in their first three years, including two in their first six to eight months.

Benjamin Peeler, chief of pediatric and adult congenital cardiothoracic surgery at Carolinas HealthCare System, said between five to 15 percent of HLHS and other single-ventricle babies die before their second surgery.

Peeler said he hopes the Olsens' gift will help lower that interstage mortality rate while providing families support during the critical, six-month period after birth.

“It's a lot to have round-the-clock care with medical experts in the hospital,” Peeler said. “But then we send families home and the next day it's just all you at home without the support network.”

Friday's announcement was attended by Olsen's parents and his brother Kevin, a freshman quarterback at Miami. All three of the Olsens' children also were there: 2-year-old Tate, Talbot, TJ's twin sister, and TJ, who wore a onesie emblazoned with the HEARTest Yard logo.

Olsen hopes the fund will help families better endure a trying process.

“It's never really ending,” he said. “These kids are going to go through three surgeries in three years, two in their first eight months. It's not a one-and-done and you go home. It's a continuous long process and the future is still a little unclear for these kids.”

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