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Open Hearts | The Zola Family's Altruism Story

Open Hearts | The Zola Family's Altruism Story

December 22, 2020, seemed like any other normal, busy day for the Zola family. After full days at work, Penny, a contract controller, and Al, director of tech services at American Crystal Sugar, were looking forward to picking up their kids, Max, Abigail and Grant, and meeting friends for a festive holiday dinner. Then, shortly before they were going to pick up 14-year-old Grant from swim practice, the phone rang.

“We got a call from the swim coach,” Al says. “He said Grant wasn’t feeling well. He had been doing laps at the pool, just like he normally did, when all of a sudden he ran out of air and energy. When we got to the pool, he was not doing well. He was lethargic and very pale, almost gray in color.”

They decided to call an ambulance, and after arriving at Altru’s Emergency Room (ER), Grant and his parents met emergency medicine physician Pablo Lizardi, MD. Dr. Lizardi ordered a battery of tests to determine the cause of Grant’s symptoms.

“Dr. Lizardi kept us well-informed,” Al says. “About an hour and a half in, he let us know they suspected the problem was something cardiac-related, and that we would probably be transferred at some point to another facility.”

After about three hours, doctors gave the family a diagnosis: aortic aneurysm with aortic dissection. Grant needed open-heart surgery, and time was of the essence.

No Time to Waste

The Zolas quickly learned Grant would be transported toMayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, by Altru Care Flight.

“We’re very grateful that Altru had the plane right there, ready and waiting,” Al says. “If we would have had to wait, it would not have been a good situation.”

Penny flew with Grant to the Mayo Clinic while Al drove home, quickly informed his two older children on what was happening, packed a few bags and jumped back in the car for the drive to Rochester.

While Grant was being treated in the Mayo Clinic ER, Al was speaking with his sister - an ER doctor.

“She was asking a million questions, and finally I called Dr. Lizardi back and asked if he could talk to her,” Al says. “He was great. He told her what was going on and was open to answering all of her questions. It was very nice.”

Al joined Penny in the waiting room at Mayo Clinic at 4:30 a.m. By 6 a.m., Grant was in recovery.

“In a span of 12 hours, we went from going out to have dinner with friends for Christmas to being at Mayo Clinic with our son coming out of open-heart surgery,” Al says. “It was a bit of a wild ride.”

The Mayo Clinic surgeons informed Al and Penny that Grant’s aorta had been torn, causing bleeding around his heart. He had also needed an aortic valve replacement. Another surgery was needed the following day to fix some bleeding, but on Christmas Eve, with Grant out of danger, surgeons performed a procedure to close his chest.

After a few more days in the hospital and a couple of days in a nearby hotel, Al and Penny were finally able to take Grant home on New Year’s Eve.

Putting the Pieces Together

Today, Grant says he’s feeling well overall. While he has a few limitations—no football or hockey, or anything that would put too much strain on his heart—he’s able to do most of the things he enjoys, including gaming and swimming, both at the pool and at the family’s lake cabin, where they love to
spend time in the summer.

After the surgery, the Zolas did genetic testing and discovered Grant has a soft tissue disorder, similar to Loeys-Dietz syndrome, a disorder that targets connective tissue in different parts of the body.

“He’s had various issues since he was a baby, but we didn’t know it was all connected until this happened,” Al says.

Grant also has scoliosis and may need to have surgery later on a slipped vertebra, which will make it easier for him to bend over and move around. But for now, Grant and his family are just grateful for the care they received from Altru and Mayo Clinic. They’re especially thankful for the Altru Care Flight Team.

“From everything we were told, if it hadn’t been for that flight, Grant may not be here with us today,” Penny says. “The fact we got to Mayo Clinic so quickly was huge.”

While Grant doesn’t remember much about those days, he’s happy to be alive and thankful to the exceptional physicians and nurses who took care of him. He even got an unexpected benefit along with his new mechanical aortic valve: he ticks.

“If it’s quiet enough, you can hear him ticking,” Penny says. “We like to tell him he’s bionic now.”

To learn more about Altru Care Flight, visit