When Heart Disease Gets Personal
How would you like to be 10 years old and in the hospital for your birthday, Christmas and New Year’s? That’s what happened last year to Albert Carrete, Jr. a fifth grader at Crossroads Christian Schools. "It was boring," says the only child of Luz and Albert Sr., who also admits that the experience was " kind of scary."
Dec. 19, 2000. The day before his birthday, Albert wasn’t feeling well so his mom took him to the doctor. "He looked a little pale," recalls Luz. "The next thing I knew we were in the ambulance."
"I got a call from my wife at the hospital," remembers Albert Sr. "I just couldn’t comprehend it. I remember saying to the doctors, ‘You’re telling me that my boy—my only son—who has never been sick a day in his life—has a heart that isn’t working anymore?’"
The family’s disbelief was easy to understand. "The doctors can’t pinpoint what happened exactly. They think a virus attacked Albert’s heart and destroyed it," says Luz.
"At first they thought that medications would help," continues Albert Sr. "We stayed with Albert Jr. for three weeks in the hospital, but then they sent us home. His heart wasn’t responding to the medication anymore. That’s when we learned he needed a heart transplant."
Back at Crossroads Christian Schools, in Corona, California, Albert’s classmates learned that their friend was in trouble. At weekly chapel on Wednesdays they prayed for the fifth-grader. They also remembered him in their daily classroom prayers. The school held a blood drive—the largest ever reported in Riverside County. And its efforts to raise funds to help the family with medical expenses included "Have a Heart for Albert" Week, which generated tremendous support from the community.
In January the school began its annual support of Jump Rope for Heart and Hoops for Heart, the American Heart Association’s school youth programs that raise funds to help fight cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Held over a two-week period, the school’s K-8 students must choose either Jump Rope for Heart or Hoops for Heart. "Approximately 70 percent sign up for Jump Rope; the others pick Hoops. Some check out the competition and make their choice based on their chances of winning," laughs Diana Comfort, the school’s athletic director and physical education teacher who coordinates the endeavor single-handedly. "And it’s up to each kid to decide whether or not to raise funds. Our school goal, however, is $5 per student."
With 100 percent participation for a K-8 population that numbers nearly 500, the program’s impact is big. "The kids look forward to it the entire year. It’s their chance to shine in front of the entire student body," says Comfort, who brought Jump Rope for Heart and Hoops for Heart to Crossroads because they "include fitness and provide an outreach of Christ’s love to the community."
Comfort’s curriculum includes teaching her students how to jump rope. After learning the basics, they make up a short routine and perform it in front of their classmates. Then comes the Jump Rope for Heart and Hoops for Heart competition. "Each class has a contest with the top three jumpers or shooters going on to compete with the top winners from the other classes in their grade level. In basketball we do a 30-second shoot out and in jump rope we jump until only one jumper is left," explains Comfort who presents trophies or ribbons to the top three winners in each grade level.
While Albert sat on the sidelines, unable to compete for the first time in three years, his classmates broke their fund-raising record. They raised a remarkable $10 per student. "We were honored that some students collected donations for the American Heart Association in Albert’s name," says Luz. "The entire school rallied together to help our family. We really felt their love and prayers."
Nevertheless, the wait for a new heart for Albert was excruciating. "My wife couldn’t sleep at all," remembers Albert Sr. "We were on pins and needles. It was a very difficult time for us."
The call they prayed for came 5 a.m. on a Saturday morning. It was Feb. 24, 2001. By that evening Albert had a new heart. The very next day he was up walking.
"For us, it was very, very good. We feel so fortunate. There haven’t been any rejections. We would like to meet the family and share our son with them," says Albert Sr. "We wish it could be this Christmas, but with heart transplants you have to wait a year."
Nine months after his surgery, Albert says, "I’m feeling like I don’t even have a heart transplant." But the sixth grader isn’t ready to forget the events of the past year. Instead he wants to share his experience with other kids. He’s writing and illustrating a comic strip called "Strangest Times." "It’s my story," he says. "It’s about how you should value life and how fast it can change."
And what’s different about his life now—besides his new dog Faith? "I can’t do continuous sports like running," says Albert, "Or contact sports--but I never liked them anyway," laughs the youngster, who prefers riding scooters with his friends and playing with his dog.
Other changes in his life are the medications he takes for his heart—some two dozen or so pills every 24 hours—and a low-fat, low-sodium diet. Once a week the family takes a break for Albert’s choice of a soda, ice cream or maybe a hamburger.
When asked if he has any advice for kids needing a heart transplant, Albert says: "Pray to God you’ll get a new heart. Don’t lose faith." Then, with a smile, he adds, "And, remember, when you’ve had a heart transplant, nobody can call you a whimp!