The heart of a Panther

Greg Olsen’s second son will be born with a defective heart, but he, his wife and the Carolina organization refuse to give up hope

jperson@charlotteobserver.comOctober 7, 2012 

Panthers_Dolphins0818_331

Carolina Panthers' Greg Olsen (88) works to shake Miami Dolphins' Gary Guyton (59) after a reception during their preseason NFL game at Bank of America Stadium on August 17, 2012. The Panthers won, 23-17. David T. Foster III-dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

DAVID T. FOSTER III — dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

  • More information Panthers tight end Greg Olsen and his wife, Kara, have a charitable foundation called Receptions for Research that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for breast cancer research in honor of Olsen’s mother, a breast cancer survivor. Now the foundation will direct money to two causes – breast cancer and congenital heart defects. Olsen is planning an April golf tournament near his home in Waxhaw, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the Levine Children’s Hospital’s cardiology division. For more information on Olsen’s foundation, visit receptionsforresearch.org.

T.J. Olsen will never catch a touchdown pass in an organized game.

He’ll never pancake a defensive end or spin off a tackler, or do any of the other things his father, Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, has done over a successful college and NFL career.

And Olsen couldn’t care less.

“Listen, my kid can play in the band. My kid can be a golfer. He can be a great student,” Olsen said. “How ’bout just being a great kid?

“At the end of the day, that’s all that matters.”

Tuesday morning, all that matters will be at Carolinas Medical Center. That’s where Olsen will join his wife, Kara, who is scheduled to deliver twins by Caesarean section.

Prenatal tests indicate their unborn daughter is healthy and developing normally. But the Olsens’ son – to be named T.J. – will be born with a defective heart.

Kara will hold her son briefly before he is taken to neonatal intensive care.

Before he is a week old, T.J. will undergo the first of three scheduled open-heart surgeries to correct a condition known as hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS), a congenital heart disease marked by an underdeveloped left ventricle and aorta.

The surgery is perilous. But newborns who come through the initial surgery have a 75-percent survival rate.

Those in the Panthers’ organization who are closest to the Olsens marvel at their positive approach.

“We don’t have a choice,” Olsen said.

The support the Olsens have received from the Panthers has ranged from owner Jerry Richardson, to teammates, to trainers who held Olsen’s cell phone during practices last spring, when he and Kara first learned of T.J.’s condition.

Olsen, who spent his first four seasons in Chicago before coming to Charlotte via a trade in 2011, has been blown away by the support from the team and community.

“It’s a special place. And it makes so much sense that we ended up coming here,” Olsen said. “The people, the city, the doctors. Everything that our situation needs right now, we have.

“And we couldn’t be more aware and thankful for that.”

Worst-case

Olsen and Kara met as freshmen at the University of Miami, where they lived in the same dorm.

Their first date was dinner at P.F. Chang’s, followed by the movie, “Mean Girls.” The two dated through college and moved to Chicago in 2007 after the Bears drafted Olsen in the first round, 31st overall.

Olsen proposed at Christmas his rookie season. The two married in March 2009 and had their first son, Tate, in June of last year.

Kara became pregnant again early this year, with twins. During an ultrasound exam in Kara’s 18th week, in late May, the sonographer heard both heartbeats, but T.J.’s left ventricle looked smaller than his right.

The doctor told the Olsens the earliest appointment with a pediatric cardiologist would be in five weeks.

“Greg and I said there’s no possible way we can wait five weeks to find out if something’s wrong,” Kara said.

The Panthers’ training staff helped the Olsens get an appointment that afternoon. After looking at images from a fetal echocardiogram, the cardiologist called the Olsens into his office.

He drew two diagrams.

One was of a healthy heart. The other was of a heart with HLHS, a condition the Olsens had never heard of.

More prevalent in males, HLHS affects between one and four babies in every 10,000 live births. It prevents the left side of the heart from pumping enough blood to the body, forcing the right side to overcompensate.

Left untreated, the extra workload eventually causes the right side to fail.

“I was an emotional wreck to say the least,” Kara said. “It was the first time I’d ever seen Greg cry.

“The doctor tells you the worst-case scenario of what’s going to happen. They kind of lay it out there. ‘Your kid’s never going to live a fully normal life. He’ll develop slowly and never be able to play contact sports.’

“I was like, ‘Wait, wait, there has to be something good.’ ”

Hope in Boston

The doctor told the Olsens of experimental in-utero surgery that was being performed at Boston Children’s Hospital on babies with HLHS. The Olsens booked a commercial flight to Boston for the following day.

They were on their way to the airport when a call from an unknown number came up on Olsen’s cell phone. It was Richardson, who told Olsen it didn’t seem practical for the six adults in Olsen’s party – his and Kara’s parents also traveled to Boston – to fly commercially. He had chartered a plane to take Olsen and his family to Boston.

Richardson, who received a heart transplant in February 2009, also asked if he could accompany them and help arrange the meetings with the doctors.

“We were just floored,” Olsen said. “I obviously had spoken to him numerous times. But up to that point, it was pretty much business.

“For him in our darkest moment of our life to go out of his busy schedule to not only set it up for us to fly up there is one thing. But to take two days to fly with us to Boston. To sit in those waiting rooms. To sit in those consultations. Sit with teams of doctors examining our son’s heart and be there through it all ...”

The group went to the hospital the next morning. The news was not good: T.J.’s condition had advanced to a point where the in-utero surgery was not an option.

There also were concerns about exposing his twin, who will be named Talbot, to health risks.

“If there were risks to her, it was not an option to Greg and I,” Kara said.

The Olsens returned to Charlotte and began preparing for the series of three surgeries on T.J.’s heart.

A distraction in football

Olsen said his mind was elsewhere during the organized team activities in late May.

“That whole time was like a blur,” Olsen said. “That day or two I was here practicing I didn’t bring too much to the table.

“Obviously, it was a tough time.”

But with Kara feeling good and the trust they have in pediatric cardiologist Ben Peeler at the Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute, Olsen was able to return to the business of football. A six-year veteran in his second season with the Panthers, Olsen leads the team through four games with 20 receptions, which ranks fifth among all tight ends.

Olsen had a touchdown catch last weekend in a loss at Atlanta – a 17-yarder on which he eluded a Falcons defensive back with a spin move along the sideline.

Teammates said they have not noticed any change in Olsen’s attitude or preparations.

“Because of who he is, he’s able to be the same person every day and be a positive guy and look at the positive things,” center Ryan Kalil said. “That’s the kind of person he is. And that’s obviously the kind of player he is.”

Olsen, 27, said it has been nice to show up at Bank of America Stadium every day to take his mind off the upcoming surgeries and anxious moments to follow.

“Coming here is awesome,” Olsen said. “This is what I do. … It’s a nice getaway to have this purpose. I need to keep all this intact, keep my job, play well, do my thing because that’s what supports our family.

“I feel like I owe that to these guys who’ve been awesome to me.”

The week ahead

Olsen plans to be at the stadium Monday to review video of Sunday’s game against Seattle.

By 8 a.m. Tuesday, Kara will have delivered their twins.

She won’t get much time with T.J.

“I think I’ll get to hold him for a couple seconds, then they’ll whisk him away,” Kara said. “It breaks my heart just thinking about it. But I know everything they do is in his best interest. So I have to keep that in mind.”

Through the Levine Children’s Hospital, Kara has become friends with three mothers whose children were born with heart defects. Olsen has spoken several times with former Bears teammate Charles Tillman, whose daughter had a heart transplant when she was 6 months old.

The couple shared their story on ESPN last weekend, in hopes it might help others. And Olsen says the past six months have changed him.

“It puts a little perspective in your life – the things that some of us complain about, sometimes the things that all of us take for granted,” Olsen said. “And it’s sad to look back – we were no different. My wife and I at times, the things we thought were big problems are the least of our problems.

“This is my career and this is super important. But at the end of the day, without your family and your health and your kids, what does the rest of it really matter?

“When you can have all that in place, that’s a person who really has true happiness and true meaning to their life.”

A thank you

Richardson has stayed close through it all, stopping Olsen every time he sees him to ask about Kara.

“I’ll follow it every step of the way,” Richardson said. “They’re extremely mature for being young people, both of them. And they’ve got great parents.”

The Olsens were thinking about buying flowers for Richardson, or baking him cookies to thank him for his kindness.

Somehow that didn’t seem like enough. So Olsen and his wife called Richardson and asked if they could drop by his house.

When they arrived, they told him they had decided on a name for their son.

His first name would be Trent.

And his middle name?

Jerry.

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson

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