CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- A Burlington boy and his mom are spending the holidays in the hospital. Albert Jeffries, 13, who goes by Alj, needs a heart transplant.
FOX8’s Carter Coyle visited him at North Carolina Children’s Hospital in Chapel Hill Friday to check in and hear their story.
“I’m just trying my best to keep myself strong,” Alj said with a smile. “It’s like my fifth or sixth time at the hospital. But at least I can keep myself strong in here.”
Alj is an honor roll student at Broadview Middle School in Burlington. He’s always had to be careful at recess and P.E. Unlike most kids, he can’t run or jump or do anything that would put stress on his heart.
“Alj was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy when he was 4 months old,” explained his mom (and biggest cheerleader) Tina Turner. “His heart was barely squeezing. That was the beginning of our journey. The doctor said he wasn’t going to make it overnight. I was like -- I know that there’s a God. He’s going to make it.”
And he did. The last decade-plus has been a roller coaster of hospital visits and heart testing.
Alj’s young heart is now very weak.
“He’s done everything he can do. His own heart has done everything it can. At this point he needs a new heart,” said Dr. Scott Buck, Alj’s pediatric cardiologist at North Carolina Children's Hospital.
Dr. Buck said Alj is at the highest status awaiting a transplant. “His function is severely impaired. On the flip side of that, after transplant the vast majority of children and adults not only survive... they thrive.”
Dr. Buck said 75,000 Americans are waiting for an organ transplant of some sort. 300 children in the U.S. need a heart transplant. Sadly, about 50 kids every year die while waiting for a new heart.
“Waiting for a new organ is inherently unpredictable,” added Dr. Buck. “The waiting can be days, but more often it is weeks to even months.”
Turner wants to encourage people to consider being an organ donor and to discuss that option with family members so they understand your wishes.
But it’s also a struggle, she said, to hope for a new heart for her son. She knows her miracle will be another family’s tragedy.
“Someone’s death is going to bring someone’s life. I really hate that, I hate that part of it. We all do. But if it’s going to make Alj be with me and they can give that gift to me? I’d be so happy.”
Dr. Buck added, “It helps some families grapple with a tragedy, to make some sense of a tragedy, if the legacy of their child can go on in one way or another and organ transplant can provide that.”
As for Alj, he has big plans for his new heart. “That will be amazing. I’ll get to experience being happy and doing whatever I want to do... I think I’ll play football when I get a new heart. I’ll probably be able to run or ride my bike, do a lot of stuff! I will have to take care of it. Eat healthier and exercise,” he explained.
The other message he wanted to share? For other sick children to stay positive.
“I want to say that the kids whoever has a heart condition out there -- whoever is trying their best to survive -- I want to tell them to stay strong for your parents, stay strong for your brothers and sisters, stay strong for everyone you know.”
A few words that prove Alj has one of the best hearts around.