Seven-year-olds Gray Jackson and Gray Carpenter share more than a name. The two spirited kids also share a miracle: both boys received life-saving heart transplants at Levine Children’s Hospital just a few years apart. For Gray Jackson (right) – who is only a few months older than his friend with whom he shares a name – the miracle came two years after he was born with a congenital heart and blood vessel disorder which led to many complications over the first two years of his life. After enduring two heart valve replacements, emergency surgery and a bout with endocarditis, then two-year-old Gray Jackson received his new heart, a gift which gave him a renewed chance to live a full life.
Soon, the Carpenter family would experience with their own son what the Jackson’s had gone through. Even before Gray Carpenter (left) was born, his parents learned that he, too, suffered from a heart defect. Baby Gray was diagnosed in utero with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome (HLHS), meaning that he would need three open-heart surgeries beginning just days after his birth. While the surgeries helped Gray Carpenter live a while longer, he would still need a new heart. After spending several months in the hospital with an IV medication helping his heart function, the then five-year-old boy received his own life-saving gift – a new heart. Whitney Carpenter, mom to Gray Carpenter, notes that their family is “so thankful for this gift of life.”
Today, the two kids and their families are bonded by their shared history as “heart kids” and are living healthy, active lifestyles fit for adventurous little boys. The kids both enjoy playing sports like soccer, swimming, golf and tennis, and love being big brothers to their younger siblings.
The medical miracles which saved Gray Jackson’s and Gray Carpenter’s lives are due in no small part to the world-class pediatric cardiovascular team at Levine Children’s Hospital along with the support of the HEARTest Yard program, founded in 2012 by Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen and his wife Kara. The Olsen family has its own “heart kid,” TJ, who also suffers from a severe congenital heart defect. After learning of their son’s diagnosis, Greg and Kara partnered with Levine Children’s to establish the HEARTest Yard, a family service program which provides families of babies affected by congenital heart disease with critical services including in-home, private nursing care, physical therapy, speech therapy and more. The best part is that the program is available to patients at no additional cost, funded entirely by the generosity of the Olsen family and donors throughout the region.
Most recently, the HEARTest Yard has also established a neurodevelopmental program at Levine Children’s in response to the finding that nearly half of all children diagnosed with congenital heart disease face additional challenges later in life, including neurodevelopmental deficits that can impact language, fine motor skills or vision. The new neurodevelopmental program, made possible by a $750,000 gift from the Olsen family, established several key services housed at Levine Children’s including early diagnosis, comprehensive evaluation by a team of pediatric specialists, coordinated care through a single clinic, and related research to advance the field. “The Olsen’s have been such a blessing to this hospital and I know [my son] will see huge benefits from this new program,” says Brittany Jackson, mom to Gray Jackson. She continues, “When we’re the ones living this ‘heart life,’ having everyone rally around you is a key component to getting through this journey successfully.”
Featured Photo: Gray Jackson and Gray Carpenter, pictured together at a camp, are now good friends bonded by their pride in being “heart kids.”