Donate Life Month restores hope for families: Mended Little Hearts unites the community for young transplant patients
Their zippered chests are a constant reminder of how organ and blood donation saved their young lives. Tanner Yanez, 6, and Alexis Hollander-Smith, 4, underwent heart surgery at infancy. The now active, bright-eyed kids were once fighting for every grasp of air as they clung to life with a broken heart.
Alexis was born with hypoplastic left-heart syndrome, leaving the left side of the heart underdeveloped and too weak to pump blood well enough to keep circulation going to all her organs. After sitting on the heart transplant list for more than six months, the gift of life finally came.
At three and half months old, Tanner had heart surgery to fix his ventricular septal defect. Basically, he had holes in the bottom chambers of his heart.
“It really changed my life,” says Suzy Cassel-Yanez, Tanner’s mother. “I felt so alone, and I wanted to make sure that no parent be made to feel alone.”
Ms. Cassel-Yanez immediately began her mission after Tanner’s heart surgery and became the founding mother of Mended Little Hearts, a support program for parents of children with heart defects and heart disease.
Soon after the formation of Mended Little Hearts, Alexis’s mother, Suzanne Hollander-Smith, searched for online support groups for parents of children born with heart defects. She found Ms. Cassel-Yanez, who coincidentally had her baby’s heart surgery at the same hospital—Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital. As their relationship grew, they surprisingly found out that they attended the same junior high school, went to Redlands High School together, and graduated the same year.
“I could not believe it,” says Ms. Cassel-Yanez. “I have met people all over the world on my computer who have kids with congenital heart defects, but to find an old friend from high school a few miles away, wow!”
Together, they coordinate the Loma Linda group of Mended Little Hearts, one of about 20 groups formed. Much of their charitable time is spent supporting other parents by providing care packages, hospital visits, online support, educational materials, and parent matching—connecting others whose babies’ have similar heart defects.
Ms. Hollander-Smith learned how difficult having a baby with a heart defect can be for parents while she waited for her daughter’s new heart.
“It was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through in my life,” she says.
Alexis was very gray when she was born, and was whisked away from her mother’s arms. Six hours later doctors told her the bad news.
“I was in complete shock that she had a heart defect,” shares Ms. Hollander-Smith.
For the next six months, Alexis never breathed on her own. She never cooed, gurgled, or giggled. Then the phone rang at 4:00 a.m., waking up Hollander-Smith to great news. They had found a heart for Alexis.
“It was very emotional knowing that another family’s grief was such a wonderful thing for our family,” says Ms. Hollander-Smith. “It meant our baby had a chance. All we could do was pray for the donor family and thank them for making the decision they made.”
As the now 4-year-old Alexis sat on her mother’s lap, they looked at photographs of when Alexis was once hooked up to a ventilator. However, one picture was a different baby. A baby boy named Nicholas who passed away, but gave Alexis a chance to live. His parents donated his organs and gave the ultimate gift.
Ms. Hollander-Smith still keeps in contact with Nicholas’s family. She even made a scrapbook about Alexis for his mom on Mother’s Day.
Since April is “Donate Life” month, Ms. Hollander-Smith and Ms. Cassel-Yanez aim to promote awareness about organ and blood donation—a gift that saved their kids’ lives.
For more information about how to become an organ donor, visit <www.donatelife.net>.
For more information about Mended Little Hearts, go to <www.mendedlittlehearts.org>.
By Patricia Thio
Editor’s Note—This article first appeared in the April 19, 2007, issue of The San Bernardino Sun newspaper. (Reprinted with permission.)