Greg, Kara Olsen share their family’s journey through son’s heart transplant

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Many know their names, their story, and cheered their family on through the good and the bad.

Since he was born, TJ Olsen, son of former Carolina Panther Greg Olsen, has had several open heart surgeries. Over the summer, he received a new heart.

His parents opened up to Channel 9′s DaShawn Brown about how their little boy has been their source of strength -- strength that helped them push through it all together.

“We always knew with TJ’s condition, in the way they reconfigured his heart, that a heart transplant was inevitable at some point down the road,” Greg Olsen said. “The original talk was 20 years, 30 years. We were thinking he would be an adult.”

One could almost compare their journey to a spectrum, with a full range of highs and lows, dark days and bursts of color.

“We each had our moments where we were weak and then we had our moments where we were strong, and we kind of felt all of those emotions again this year,” Kara Olsen said.

Before TJ was born, his parents knew life for their youngest son and twin would be different.

“The cardiologist came in and we could tell that he had a pretty significant look of concern on his face. He gave us the news that the baby who eventually became TJ would be born with a really serious congenital heart defect called hypoplastic left heart syndrome,” Greg Olsen said. “The whole time he was breaking the news to us, we were waiting for him to say, ‘But don’t worry, we can fix it.’”

By the time TJ was eight years old, he’d already undergone three open heart surgeries -- the first, within days of being born.

The Olsens knew the day would come when TJ would need a new heart. They’d hoped it would be at least 20 years down the road. Instead, it happened this year, when his modified heart began to fail.

“This one night, I put them to bed, and he was like, ‘Mom, I’m having a hard time breathing.’ And I’m like, ‘That’s not OK.’ I immediately texted our cardiologist,” Kara Olsen said. “So they did an echo on him. They didn’t say anything, but when we were walking back to his room to meet with the doctors, they had games. One of the nurses who we know really well had a bunch of games, and immediately, at that moment...”

The Olsen’s journey through organ transplant began.

But the family said TJ remained optimistic through it all.

“He’s the one going through this. And he’s giving us such strength because he is so positive. Everything is positive ... and he just made every day fun,” Kara Olsen said.

“It really was. Sometimes he would forget … And you had to take a second and be like, ‘Oh wait, we’re sitting in a hospital awaiting a heart transplant,’” Greg Olsen said.

They waited seven days as the community rallied. Then came the night they got the news as Charlotte’s skyline sparkled in lime green to honor organ transplant awareness -- ironically, TJ’s favorite color.

“We couldn’t tell anyone, but the doctor said to come in. I think it was two in the afternoon. They came in as a team and I’m like, ‘OK, why are they all walking in?’” Kara Olsen said.

Greg Olsen posted a video on his Instagram at the time of TJ telling his siblings that he was getting a new heart.

“Our story is not unique. There are thousands and thousands of people across the country that, in essence, have the exact same story as us. We just realize that our story comes with a little more ability to get it out there and use it for good, and we feel a strong commitment to taking advantage of that,” Greg Olsen said.

For nearly a decade, that’s what they’ve done through their nonprofit, the HEARTest Yard, which provides access to services like private nursing, and therapy. Most recently, they’ve built a world-class facility.

“The only reason we’re able to do these events, the only reason we’re able to build these new facilities at Levine Children’s, and continue to expand the program offerings that they have in their programs, is because of the support of the people in the community. Specifically the Charlotte community, in the way they wrap their arms around not only our family, not only our story, but our purpose and our mission to service this region,” Greg Olsen said.

On Nov. 1, the HEARTest Yard is hosting its annual fit-fest at the Atrium Dome, near the Panthers practice field.

The fundraiser offers a mix of fitness instruction, a block party, and shopping with local vendors. One hundred percent of the proceeds help support families and children born with congenital heart disease and are being treated at Levine Children’s Hospital. Click here to register.

(WATCH BELOW: ‘It gives us a lot of purpose’: Olsen family opens up about HEARTest Yard initiative)