John, a vibrant, athletic and grateful high school senior, came from humble beginnings in terms of his health.
When he was just eight days old, John was rushed into emergency heart surgery at CHOC’s Heart Institute.
Thanks to the expert care from CHOC, John was able to grow up without any major heart issues.
Now at age 17, John doesn’t take his life for granted. With gratitude and maturity, he is on a mission to thank as many members of his care team as possible, while hoping to inspire others along the way.
A miraculous birth
For John’s parents, Anna and Al, his birth was a miracle over six years in the making.
John was born prematurely at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, CA, where he stayed at the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) to continue to grow. Eight days later, Anna and Al got a call from a concerned staff about John’s rapid breathing and poor blood circulation. They told them that John needed to be transferred to CHOC for emergency heart surgery.
As Anna and Al rushed to Hoag, the transition to CHOC was already in motion.
One moment from that day stands out in Anna’s memory. The CHOC transport team told Anna and Al to follow their ambulance to CHOC, but they also cautioned, “If we turn on our lights and go faster, don’t try to keep up with us.”
Their statement emphasized just how serious John’s condition was.
John made it to CHOC, where he was diagnosed with coarctation of the aorta, a birth defect that involves a narrowing of the aorta, or the large artery that carries blood to the rest of the body.
Swift plans to correct John’s coarctation of the aorta
Anna and Al met with John’s care team who swiftly laid out the plan for the following 24 hours. Dr. Brian Palafox, a cardiothoracic surgeon at CHOC, would perform John’s surgery.
“Right away, we just had so much confidence in the CHOC team,” says Anna. “When we met Dr. Palafox, we knew instantly that he had the situation handled.”
The following morning, Dr. Palafox performed surgery to correct John’s coarctation of the aorta. John stayed at CHOC’s cardiovascular intensive care unit (CVICU) for the next ten days to recover. During that time, Anna and Al felt helpless. They remember seeing John’s tiny body surrounded by dozens of pieces of equipment and wires.
But the resounding memory from John’s stay is one of compassion — symbolized by the heart that the nurses drew on the gauze holding John’s IV.
Anna and Al were grateful for the extra time in the CVICU, where they received advice and training from the medical staff on how best to feed, bathe and care for John when they went home. 10 days later, they all got to return home to start their lives together.
John appreciates those who cared for him in the past
Al and Anna shared John’s early health journey with him as he grew up, and knowing that he went he went through so much feels felt unbelievable to John. Over the years, John would have annual checkups with CHOC Cardiologist Dr. David Chun, but otherwise, he lived a healthy, active life.
In fact, John was determined to make the most of his heart. As an avid athlete, John has played almost every sport imaginable. Tee ball, skateboarding, street hockey, football, basketball, mountain biking and track — just to name a few.
“When I came to sports, I just went for it,” John says. “Why not?”
Today, John has settled on soccer. He plays goalkeeper for his high school and club teams, while also dabbling in singing, songwriting and sports photography. John just earned his Eagle Scout rank and is also interested in pursuing a career in health care.
“I just want to make a difference,” says John. “That’s really what motivates me in all areas of my life. I ask myself, ‘What can I do to make the biggest positive impact?’”
On a mission to give back
One such impact is gratitude. About a year ago, John told Al and Anna that he would like to meet and thank the medical team that helped him 17 years ago. First up was Dr. Palafox, who still treats kids at CHOC today.
Recently, John got to sit down with Dr. Palafox and thank him personally.
“It was probably one of the coolest things I have done,” says John. “I owed him a thank you because he did the important work and performed the surgery that day so I could be here today. Now I am 17, a senior in high school, and living the dream. I am so grateful.”
Next, John got to meet Cynthia Bolin, a nurse who helped care for him at the CVICU at CHOC Hospital in Orange 17 years ago — she still works in the very same unit today. John was excited to get to meet her, and Cynthia returned the sentiment. They bonded over a love for mountain biking.
“It’s really exciting to see how well John is doing,” says Cynthia. “He’s healthy, strong and athletic. I think it’s awesome that he’s reaching out to meet his care team to say thank you.”
Inspired by the CHOC staff who helped care for him when he was a baby, John wants to help as many other people as possible. He uses his story as just one way to help others.
When asked if he had any advice for families going through a similar health journey, John admits that he had just been thinking about this very thing.
John’s message to other kids facing health challenges is one of resilience and optimism. He encourages them not to let their conditions hold them back, to trust the process and to have faith in their doctors. To parents navigating similar journeys, he offers reassurance that even in the darkest moments, there can be sunshine ahead.
John’s story demonstrates the power of compassionate care, gratitude and a positive outlook. It’s his greatest wish that his journey can inspire others and offer a glimmer of hope to those who need it most.
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At CHOC, our highly specialized and board-certified pediatric cardiology team and cardiothoracic surgeons provide patients and families with advanced cardiac services.