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A Special Connection Found in a Heart of Gold

At the American Heart Association Tampa Bay Heart Ball on April 29, guests will hear the incredible journey of a courageous young man named Garrett Leopold and the story of how his life extraordinarily intertwined with the Pierce family.

Photo credit: Momentum

Garrett was born in 1996 with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome (HLHS) – a congenital heart defect that means the left side of the heart is underdeveloped. HLHS is usually fatal within the first days or months of life unless it’s quickly treated with a series of operations or heart transplantation. At 3 months old, Garrett received his first heart transplant. After a few stable years, Garrett’s health problems continued.

Photo credit: Todd Bates

“When I was 6 years old, I was diagnosed with lymphoma cancer,” Garrett said.

With determination and strength, and by the grace of God, Garrett beat his cancer.

Fast forward to eighth grade: Garrett was 15, feeling good, and back in public school. But within months, he began experiencing shortness of breath, severe lethargy and chest pain.

“I knew something was going on. I knew something wasn’t right,” Garrett said.

Garrett learned that 15 years after his first heart transplant, he’d need another. For seven long, trying months Garrett was bound to the hospital and on medication 24/7.

“I was put into the hospital August 23rd, 2012, not knowing when I’d get out. My world was turning upside down,” Garrett said.

American-Heart-Assocation-Heart-BallIn March 2013, Garrett took a turn for the worse. He was in dire need of a new heart. That same weekend, Plant High School senior Amanda Pierce passed away in a car accident. Amanda was preparing to attend Tallahassee Community College with goals of transferring to Florida State University and studying special education. Amanda was generous, fun-loving, and full of compassion. She had a heart of gold.

Amanda’s last gracious act was donating her organs – a decision she made on her own at 16. It was through this act that Garrett received his new heart and another start at life.

“So often the people who share the ultimate gift of life are forgotten and anonymous,” said Laurie Pierce, Amanda’s mom. “Amanda was a vibrant, loving person on Earth. It is my hope that she will always be remembered.”

In the year that followed Garrett’s transplant, he and Amanda’s family connected. Their relationships have grown throughout the years and together, Garrett and Laurie shared their stories at the Heart Ball.

“There have been so many others in my shoes who have not made it,” Garrett said. “There is more research to be done and more people to help, and I hope that people are impacted by my journey and inspired to support the American Heart Association.”

“You can see the passion the American Heart Association has in helping raise awareness of heart disease,” Laurie said. “My hope is that when people learn about Amanda and Garrett, they will see we are all connected in life. Garrett and I are connected in a profound way, and his and Amanda’s story is really a story of love and helping one another.”

During the Heart Ball, guests will witness a momentous dance between Garrett and Laurie. A dance they’d practiced for months. A dance where Laurie will hear Amanda’s heart beat again.

“I love Laurie. This experience has given me an even deeper respect for her and how she always makes me feel worthy of having Amanda’s heart,” Garrett said.

Photo credit:Momentum

The American Heart Association funds more pediatric cardiac research than any U.S. organization except the federal government. In 2016, the organization funded more than $13.5 million in research related to children’s heart disease.

Despite the progress made in understanding and treating congenital heart defects, more research is needed.

“When my wife Julie and I committed to chairing the Heart Ball, we never thought we’d encounter a story like Amanda and Garrett’s that would change our lives and the lives of countless people in our community,” said Allen Brinkman, CEO of SunTrust Bank and the 2017 Heart Ball chair. “We are beyond moved by Laurie and Garrett’s bravery and strength, and we are grateful for the American Heart Association supporters who have dedicated their resources to fighting cardiovascular diseases.”

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