‘Keep fighting’: Daughter’s heart transplants inspire dad’s mission to help others

CHARLOTTE — At just 12 years old, a brave girl from Mooresville has already had two heart transplants; and as she gets older, she knows she’ll need more.

But through it all, Sophia Brownlee has had her dad by her side, and both of them are now committed to helping others who need transplants.

“I recognize that being a father is an important role in raising children,” said Joe Brownlee.

He found out during his birthday week that their family was growing, with the addition of a baby girl. Excitement was high as they prepared to welcome her, but at a 20-week checkup, the dynamic shifted.

“Next thing you know, I felt like we were swarmed by medical professionals saying, ‘Your child has a heart defect,’” Joe told Channel 9′s Almiya White.

“From an emotional high of knowing what your first biological child was going to be, from a boy or girl, to now [all] you want is health.”

Sophia was born in July 2010, and despite two surgeries in four months, her heart was failing. That December, she was listed for a heart transplant, and they received a Christmas miracle.

“She ended up going into surgery about three o’clock that afternoon on Christmas Eve,” Joe told White.

On Christmas morning, Sophia had a brand new heart, and it worked beautifully.

Fast forward to 2021, when Sophia was 11.

“They told me that I need a new heart and that my heart was failing,” Sophia told White. “So you know, I cried too, because I was afraid.”

Sophia was diagnosed with a disease called Cardiac allograft vasculopathy (CAV), which is common in transplant patients.

The only option was another transplant.

“It was a bit, like, challenging for me to hear that at 11 years old, especially,” Sophia said.

She also learned that pediatric heart transplants typically last only 17 years, which means possibly another transplant when she’s in her 20s.

“So Enduring Hearts really came in and said their focus was research, and that was what Rene and I wanted to focus on because we need to find a solution for this disease,” Joe said.

That’s when he joined the board of Enduring Hearts, a non-profit organization supporting the heart transplant community.

Now, he’s the CEO of the organization, and he’s working to give Sophia and others like her a better chance at life.

“We think about the investment we make in our children. We want them to live 70, 80, 90 years,” Joe said.

Sophia is almost 13 now, and she says that’s her mission too. She wants others who are walking in her shoes to make it their mission.

“To keep fighting,” Sophia said. “You’re going to make it, and you’re going to get something awesome out of it.”

You can find more information about Enduring Hearts and how to help, at this link.

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Almiya White

Almiya White, wsoctv.com

Almiya White is a reporter for WSOC-TV