Greg Olsen inspired to help other families after dealing with young son's heart condition

The phone connection isn't as clear as it could be, yet the excitement and joy in Greg Olsen's voice is unmistakable when he is asked about his son TJ.

"He's doing great," Olsen said. "He just turned a year [old] in October. He has two of his surgeries behind him, and he's starting to flourish and lead a pretty normal life."

But life for Greg and his wife, Kara, has been far from normal since TJ and his twin sister, Talbot, were born. Talbot was born healthy, but TJ was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a condition in which the left side of the heart is unable to pump blood properly.

Before he celebrated that first birthday, TJ Olsen already had undergone two heart surgeries. But he has survived and thrived, and his fight has inspired Olsen to donate money for families with similarly-afflicted children.

"As a family, [TJ's condition] snapped us into what's really important," said Olsen, a former Wayne Hills star who is a standout tight end for the Carolina Panthers, who host the Jets on Sunday. "This situation with TJ was about as bad as it could be for us as parents and as a family.

"I think it frames [a different] perspective on everything in your life," Olsen added. "The little things like dealing with injuries and dealing with nagging stuff, it's all trivial and minor compared to the stuff that we've been through."

What helped the Olsens get through it was the fact they were able to hire a live-in nurse for five months between TJ's first and second surgeries, to help monitor him and provide round-the-clock care.

"It's a little overwhelming for a family," Olsen said. "We were able to bring in a nurse who specializes in newborns. … We always had an extra set of hands."
The Olsens, who also have an older son, Tate, believe that extra care helped TJ make rapid progress. And that made them wonder what it's like for families who don't have an NFL player's salary to help pay for things.

"That was really the inspiration behind starting the program," said Olsen, referring to the HEARTest Yard Fund, now part of Olsen's foundation, Receptions For Research (

In June, Olsen's foundation donated $289,325 to the Levine Children's Hospital in Charlotte, N.C., and fundraising efforts are ongoing. Olsen said the money raised will be administered through the hospital to help families in need.

Dr. Benjamin Peeler, chief of pediatric and adult congenital cardiothoracic surgery for Carolinas HealthCare System, said there is a five- to 15-percent mortality rate before the second surgery for babies born with single-ventricle defects such as HLHS.

Peeler said Olsen approached him about two to three months after TJ's first operation about setting up a fund to help families in similar situations.
"I can't say enough about the Olsen family and Kara's family," Peeler said. "They're unbelievable people."

Olsen's foundation first was started to help fund cancer research. His mother, Sue, is a breast cancer survivor. She and his father, Chris Sr., have moved to North Carolina now that the former Wayne Hills football coach and athletic director has retired.

"It's been a treat," Olsen said of having his parents around, noting they usually go out to eat after Panthers home games.

Peeler, TJ's surgeon, said he is progressing well, although he still faces a third surgery at some point to help re-route blood away from the nonfunctioning ventricle. He said TJ is growing rapidly, which is a great sign.

"He's bigger than his twin sister," Peeler marveled. "By all rights, he should be smaller."

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