Nick Zerwas isn’t supposed to be alive today. He was a precious heartbeat away from death at birth in 1980, born with a three-chambered heart instead of four. Even after doctors performed a risky operation to get his heart to pump oxygenated blood to his lungs, their prognosis was gloomy: Nick wouldn’t live past his seventh birthday. He did.
In 9th grade, Nick unexpectedly discovered a memorial page in his school’s yearbook that classmates dedicated to him. Witnessing his struggles with life-threatening heart problems,
they didn’t expect him to celebrate his “sweet 16” birthday. He did.
He was still around for his high school graduation, too, when he told his classmates: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery and today, the present, is a gift.” Today, in the present, Nick’s life is a gift to many who are inspired by “The Gift Of An Open Heart,” his autobiographical chronicle of a courageous confrontation with mortality. As a child, Nick says he longed to be “just like the other kids.”
But he wasn’t. Throughout his first 18 years, he endured nine surgeries and countless months in the hospital. Now, as a 28-year-old — after 10 open-heart surgeries, a two-and-a-half-year wait for a heart transplant and a stroke — Nick’s life is “normal,” his heart “too healthy” for a transplant. He’s married to his high school sweetheart, Julie, and living in Ramsey, Minn. He works for the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office, serving as a property and evidence technician in the crime lab. He’s earning a master’s degree in education, yearning to fulfill his dream of becoming a high school science teacher. “I really believe we are on earth until our mission is complete,” Nick says. “When we are done, we are done. When my time is up, it’s up. And if it’s not up yet, then a little surgery won’t stop me.”
To be sure, it hasn’t stopped him from influencing and inspiring thousands through his volunteer activities for the American Heart Association on local, regional and national levels. He has been a spokesperson at fund raisers, churches and business conferences and has lobbied members of Congress as part of the association’s public policy and advocacy efforts. Nick says he can share his “gift of an open heart” because of donors’ gifts to the American Heart Association. In fact, he says, public funding for the association’s research and education programs has led to lifesaving surgery and medicines — including those that help him live today… against all odds.
Update: Nick was inducted into the 2010 Twin Cities (Minnesota) Start! Heart Walk Hall of Fame. See his video comments about this honor and why supporting the American Heart Association is so important to him.