CHARLOTTE – For most NFL players, the bye week is a time of recovery, a small window in the midst of the grind to rest up for what’s to come.
Panthers tight end Greg Olsen‘s bye week won’t be anything like that.
Olsen’s wife, Kara, is scheduled to deliver twins via C-section Tuesday, a tense event for any family, even absent of complications.
In this case, though, there are complications of the highest order. While all the prenatal tests show that their twin girl, to be named Talbot, is healthy, twin boy T.J. will immediately begin a fight to survive a rare condition called Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome (HLHS).
At some point during his first week in this world, T.J. will undergo open heart surgery, the most serious in a series of three surgeries. The survival rate for HLHS patients is in the 75-percent range.
“It’s unfortunate,” Olsen said. “But you can’t lose hope.”
Away from the public eye, the Olsens have been fighting for nearly six months now, since the day they received the diagnosis. Last Sunday on ESPN’s NFL Sunday Countdown, they went public with their struggle in an effort to shed light on the rare condition and lend support to other families dealing with such a dire reality.
Through it, they’ve been buoyed by a level of support they never could have imagined.
“There are a lot of families out there that feel like they’re the only ones because it’s such a rare thing, so we wanted people to be aware that so many families are affected by this,” Olsen said. “We’ve gotten amazing feedback – letters and countless emails. It’s been amazing to hear great success stories, people telling us they have a child that’s six years old that had the three surgeries that our son will have, and he’s doing great in school.
“We love to hear those stories, because that’s what we’re really focused on going forward. It’s really a special thing for people to share that common bond and to be there for one another, to be able to lean on each other.”
Behind the scenes, Olsen’s football family has been supportive of his family, which includes 1-year-old son Tate, since the beginning of the ordeal. The day after getting the diagnosis in April, the Olsens were on their way to the airport for a trip to Boston to discuss their options with a specialist.
That’s when Olsen’s cell phone rang. It was Panthers Owner/Founder Jerry Richardson, three years removed from a heart transplant, asking if he could transport the Olsens to Boston and accompany them on the trip.
“It is remarkable. At the time of the biggest need of our lives, the hardest thing our family has ever had to deal with, somebody who up to that point I just had a business relationship with went out of his way like that,” Olsen said. “Getting to Boston to see doctors, getting back down here to meet with the surgeon, a conference call with people in Ann Arbor – to have all that done within 48 hours would not have been possible if it were not for Mr. Richardson.”
By the way, T.J.’s first name is Trent. His middle name is Jerry.
The Olsens’ battle with HLHS – on a personal level and on behalf of others – is only beginning.
Olsen’s foundation, Receptions for Research, has been focused on cancer research since its inception. His mother, Susan, is a breast cancer survivor who was first diagnosed in 2001 (and incidentally, the Panthers have designated Sunday’s game as their annual breast-cancer awareness game).
Now, Olsen’s foundation has launched a new initiative, the HEARTest Yard, to raise the profile of HLHS and to raise funds for the fast-growing pediatric cardiovascular intensive care unit at Levine Children’s Hospital at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte.
“We’ve jumped onboard with that, and we’ll have some events down the road to raise money and awareness,” Olsen said. “Obviously this is going to be a long road and a scary one for us, but to hear from other people who have been down that path we’re about to go down and hear their trials and tribulations is nice.
“We’re going to fight, and we’re going to do everything we can to let other people know that they’re not alone.”