February 14 is a day for lovers, but it's also CHD Awareness Day to spread information about and celebrate survivors of congenital heart defects. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 40,000 babies are born with a congenital heart defect in the United States every year. This means about 1% of all babies are born with one of the several heart conditions identified as a CHD, ranging from Atrial Septal Defect — commonly known as a "hole in the heart" — to Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome — or "half a heart" where the left side of the heart is underdeveloped or nearly missing.
Thankfully, science and technology have greatly increased the survival rate of children born with a congenital heart defect. The survival rate for children born with the most severe CHDs rose 16% in the time span from 1994 and 2005 compared to the dates from 1979 and 1993 so that about 83% of babies with critical CHDs lived to see their first birthday. There are several stories of survival and overcoming the odds, including in the sports world. Rising basketball star Shareef O'Neal — son of NBA icon Shaq — and recently retired Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen's son T.J. both have congenital heart defects, beat the odds and are living happy lives.
Shareef O'Neal Paves His Own Legacy
Shareef O'Neal was born with a right anomalous coronary artery, a congenital heart defect where a vessel grew out of place. But the four-star recruit lived all the way through high school without even knowing he had the condition. When he entered his first year at UCLA, he struggled practicing with the basketball team and, upon receiving medical attention, he was diagnosed and told he had to have open-heart surgery.
His mother, Shaunie, detailed the hardship the diagnosis brought their family on her show "Basketball Wives." O'Neal redshirted his freshman year to undergo the procedure in December 2018. Recovery took time and determination, but he returned to UCLA workouts in May of 2019 and played with the legendary Drew League in Los Angeles that summer. He displayed his lengthy chest scar on social media proudly, declaring himself Zipper Boy.
"“I learned to never take anything for granted," he told the Los Angeles Times.
Reflecting on his surgery a year later in an Instagram post, O'Neal revealed how difficult it was for him, but also shared how it was a blessing.
"I thought I was going through hell while dealing with this process but then i realized it was a blessing that it was found," he said in the caption for a video of him taking his first steps out of surgery with the help of his father. "I am very grateful for my health today and I will always be."
O'Neal left UCLA in the winter of 2019 and went to Shaq's alma mater to join the LSU Tigers. He's played in 10 games this season, averaging 2.8 points and 4.4 rebounds per game.
Greg Olsen's Son T.J. Brought His Family Closer Than Ever
NFL star Greg Olsen's world was turned upside down when, in 2012, he and his wife, Kara, were told that one of their twins was going to be born with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome, a condition where the left atrium and ventricle are underdeveloped, making it extremely difficult for the heart to pump oxygenated blood to the body. On The Player's Tribune, Olsen detailed his journey with his son, T.J., through three reconstructive surgeries starting when T.J. was only two days old. The former Carolina Panther star details the intense highs and lows that his family experienced through everything, including the decision to hire an in-home nurse so that T.J. would receive the proper attention he needed.
On Instagram, Olsen shared that, in December 2019, T.J. had the flu that turned into a heart infection. He received treatment and, after a quick procedure, the little guy was back on his feet in no time. Out of gratefulness for the amount of support they were shown, the Olsen Family started their own foundation, The HEARTest Yard, to provide support and resources for families who have a child with a congenital heart defect.
In The Player's Tribune piece, Olsen, who announced his retirement from football in January, celebrated how his family is his greatest joy in life and knows that T.J., his twin sister, Talbot, and their older brother, Tate, all have special life lessons because of their journey.
"For as much fun as I have out there with my teammates, nothing will ever compare to the joy I get from running around and laughing with my kids. They’re who I live for, and they’re growing up so fast.
"And after everything that’s happened to our family, I know they’re going to be able to accomplish anything they want to in life. Because if there’s one thing I learned in the last four and a half years, it’s that giving up isn’t worth it."
This article is also an appreciation of my not-so-baby brother, Eli. He has HLHS, had the same three surgeries and is the happiest, kindest, swaggiest kid you'll ever meet.