The last few days have been some of the hardest in my cause community since I started working in this space. In just the last 24 hours, nine I children I know died from their heart defect. Nine. I’ve had weeks where I’ve known 14 kids that lost their battle with their heart defect, but nine in one day is a record. A painful, terrible, paralyzing record. If there was ever a day where I wish I could walk away from the work I do – today is it.
But I can’t walk away, because this is not a job – it is a calling.
I didn’t always know this was my calling. My sister died when I was 10 years old from an undiagnosed heart defect. It affected me and my family profoundly, but I didn’t decide then that I was going to spend the rest of my life trying to save other families and other children from that fate.
I grew up, went to college and ended up a jury consultant. While on a business trip I met a little girl at a golf tournament. She was hitting farther than the grown men on the course and when I went to tell her how incredible I thought that was, I found out that was hardly the most incredible thing about her.
I noticed a heart with two stick-figure kids on either side of it embroidered on her golf bag and when I asked about it she told me she had two open heart surgeries before she was two years old and that it was her mission to raise one million dollars to fund research for children with heart defects. Did I mention she was 10 when I met her?
I made a donation to the non-profit she was raising money for, The Children’s Heart Foundation, soon after and soon after that joined their Board. I started volunteering at their office and while I became more and more invested in the heart families I was meeting, the extraordinary research we were funding and what that could mean for children born decades after my sister….that piece of the heart defect world was not my calling.
One day I got a letter from a father in Ghana whose son needed heart surgery. No hospital in Ghana had the equipment and no surgeon there had the necessary skills. His son was dying and he was sending letters to every organization he could find that had anything to do with children and hearts.
His letter was desperate. I didn’t know how to help him but I had a computer and I had access to a Board full of the finest congenital heart surgeons in the world – these were things he didn’t have. It only took me a few days to find a surgical mission team going to Sudan and only a few more days to figure out how to get him from Ghana to there.
That’s when my calling found me – but it’s not when I answered the call.
I got letters like that frequently, but it wasn’t my daily work and I was glad because most of the time it took a lot longer than a few days to find help for someone. Many times it took a month or more and sometimes help was simply unable to be found. I spent whole days crying when that happened and countless sleepless nights hoping that one more email or phone call would turn up some new solution.
It was the thing I was most passionate about spending my time on, but I was terrified.
I remember the day my sister died like it was yesterday. The almost 27 years that have passed since then have done little to dull the pain of it. I watched a part of my mother and father die with her that will never – and can never – come back.
The stakes were very personal to me. I knew exactly what would happen if I couldn’t find help for a child who needed it. I knew how forever changed and incomplete their family would feel. Every time I couldn’t find help for someone – every time a child died – I was taken back immediately to the day my sister died and all the unbearable pain that came along with it.
It took me almost two years to get over that fear and actually answer my calling. My fears weren’t unfounded. When I left Children’s Heart Foundation and started my own non-profits, the amount of letters I got from families who needed help grew, but the amount of help available did not.
The horrible truth is that on average, every other day I know a child that has died from their heart defect. That’s not just a horrible truth – it’s a hard and crushing truth that sometimes makes it hard for me to breathe, eat, sleep or do any of the other things a normal human being does to take care of themselves.
For a brief moment last night in the aftermath of nine lives lost in a day, I wondered if I could really do this anymore. I wondered what to do period because there’s no manual that tells you how to deal with that.
Good friend Megan Strand reminded me exactly what to do:
“You take a deep breath and know that you have a calling on this earth and nine more angels to guide you.”
If this wasn’t my calling I couldn’t put myself through another night like last night again. But it is my calling. And because I answered it, the wonderful truth is that on average, every other day I get lifesaving help to a child with a heart defect.
Most everyone I know who works in nonprofit is there because they answered their call. Have you answered yours?