JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. – When Jamie Rosenbalm learned at 20 weeks pregnant that her son, Creed, would be born with a heart defect, she was devastated.
“The life was sucked out of me,” she said of her reaction to the news. “But as I dealt with it that day, I said, ‘If that’s what God wanted me to have, then that’s what I’m going to have.’ I had the option to terminate. I said no.”
But even with that resolve, it hasn’t been easy to face her son’s medical challenges.
“He had three open-heart surgeries before he was 6 months old, and he’s got one more to go; they tell me when he’s 3 years old or when he hits 30 pounds, whichever happens first,” she said. “It’s been a rough start for him, but he’s amazing. He smiles all the time.”
She said it’s made a big difference to have the support of Mended Little Hearts – a local nonprofit group she discovered via Facebook.
“They are a great support group. They help out every time we have to travel to Nashville. They always gave us a care bag or whatever we needed to get there or to help make our stay better,” she said. “Being with Mended Little Hearts, I know I have people I can turn to, to ask questions.”
Families like this are the reason Agnes Rhodes, coordinator for the Johnson City chapter of Mended Little Hearts, says she stays involved.
“We meet monthly, we have speakers in the health field, we have any kind of information that will help our parents out,” Rhodes said of the group, which is the only chapter in the Tri-Cities region. “We try to meet any and every need that we possibly can.”
Rhodes is also the parent of a “heart child” – the term given by the group to the 1 in 100 children that is born with a heart defect. She adopted her son, Andrew, after he’d had his surgeries, but even then, there was a lot to learn.
“It’s been a true learning experience for us,” she said. “It’s a hard balancing act for families, and you need to have a good support system. And it’s good to know you’ve got somebody who can understand what you’re going through.”
The nonprofit group does a lot to get the word out – from participating in parades and health fairs to hosting balloon launch events for the community. The purpose, Rhodes said, is to reach families of heart children who would benefit from being part of the group. At the same time, Mended Little Hearts is always fundraising.
“There’s not a cure for heart defects as of yet, but that’s why we need more research,” she said, “so that hopefully future generations would be able to do something.”
The group also accepts donations of items for care bags, which are given to families to make their stays more comfortable when they have to travel for their children’s medical care.
Rhodes also stresses that anyone can join Mended Little Hearts – including those who just want to help out.
Kayla Thomas, a nurse from Johnson City, said she first came to the group a year ago with two fellow nursing students – for a school project.
“We all ended up joining,” said Thomas, who graduated in May from Northeast State. “I go to the meetings of course, and then I help plan out the fundraisers ... I guess we’ve gotten close to all the people in the group, and I just like helping them out.”
Rosenbalm, who lives in Kingsport, said it gives her confidence to see other heart children and all the things they can do despite their conditions – and to hear them talk about an Olympic athlete who is competing in this year’s winter games despite having a heart defect.
“If he can do it,” she says, “why can’t my son?”
To learn more about Mended Little Hearts, call 423-676-8352.
2014 Balloon Launch Events
Where: Mountain View Baptist Church, 4500 Bristol Hwy.
When: 10 a.m., Saturday, Feb. 8
Where: Common Ground Church, 2844 Highway 11E
(Across from Bristol Motor Speedway)
When: 4 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 9
Where: Trinity Memorial Center, 1221 Stewball Circle
When: 4 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 15