PALO ALTO – TJ Carrie can command a room, naturally engaging one without forgetting others. A smooth gait, comforting cadence and 1,000-watt smile makes him friendly and approachable, important traits for a beacon of hope.
Scared kids and parents see the East Bay native and Raiders defensive back as a fairytale ending, proof that happier days are attainable following open-heart surgery.
Count Soraya Duckworth among them. The eight-year-old girl has been in hospitals most of her life, battling a congenital heart condition that required several surgeries and demands more down the road.
Carrie came to see Duckworth and others like her Wednesday at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, exactly 12 years after he went under the knife to reposition a misaligned coronary artery.
This anniversary, however, was something special. He reunited for the first time with Dr. Frank Hanley, the surgeon who allowed him to pursue NFL dreams. He also brought awareness to Camp Taylor, a support system for kids with heart disease, by bringing cameras in tow. Carrie’s primary focus, however, remained on these kids.
Carrie was 16 when he had major surgery, and remembers the fear and stress that came before and after. His goal Wednesday, as it is every time he makes these hospital visits, was to take worry away.
“I want them to walk away with positivity,” Carrie said. “I know this period is going to shape their life. This is something important, something that’s going to propel them when times get tough in the future, when they have to make other life decisions. Kids will remember these days forever.”
Duckworth was first in line for a meet and greet. They talked about Frozen, Disney princesses and her dream of becoming a doctor, ignoring cameras and PR folks and loved ones glued to the interaction. Carrie then handed her a plush doll with his likeness, right down to the long scar dividing its chest.
Carrie used to hate the real one. It came with a bump in the middle of his chest, after his sternum didn’t properly come back together following surgery. He hated that, too, and the daily reminder that he was somehow different, seemingly weaker than athletes he hoped to compete against. It was the one thing that could sap Carrie’s confidence.
“It took me a while to embrace my scar and the defect I had,” Carrie said. “Being self-conscious just happens. You feel like you’ll never be the same again. You’re embarrassed to take off your shirt because you don’t want anyone else to see what I went through. Kids go through that, and sometimes kids don’t leave that mindset. It’s important to view them as battle wounds and proof that you overcame so much, that you fought and won.”
Carrie’s fight was technically optional. Surgery wasn’t required to lead a sedentary life, one without athletics or the strenuous football training that brought his condition to light in the first place.
Carrie passed out during a preseason workout his freshman year at Antioch Deer Valley High – he was set to transfer to Concord De La Salle a few days later -- and doctors eventually discovered that his coronary artery was incorrectly positioned between his lungs. The diagnosis created a crossroads, especially for someone so athletically inclined.
Carrie had some input on what happened next, but his parents were ultimately charged with the decision.
“I would say that weighed heavy on my parents because, ultimately, I was the one who had to battle every day and live with their choice,” Carrie said. “The only thing I can remember is that I wanted to play football. It was my dream, and I wanted to achieve that dream. I was willing to battle and go through tough times in order to play football. They knew, as far as I was concerned, I wanted the surgery and a chance to keep playing.”
The Carries gave consent to repair this one-in-a-million defect, and Dr. Hanley’s work kept NFL dreams alive. The surgeon, then working at Oakland’s Benioff Children’s Hospital, had performed Carrie’s procedure a dozen times before then. He has done roughly 100 since using the same innovative technique that has now become common.
The procedure took just over an hour. Carrie was in the hospital nearly a month and his recovery lasted well over a year. He didn’t play prep football until his senior season, as doctors remained cautious about him playing a contact sport. He also had to make up for lost class time, taking evening courses at a junior college trying to catch up and become attractive in college football’s recruiting process.
Carrie eventually found sure footing, dominated his senior year at De La Salle in football and track. He earned a scholarship to Ohio University and, despite other football-related injury setbacks, was a Raiders seventh-round pick in 2014. Carrie has played for productive seasons for his hometown club and becomes an unrestricted free agent in March.
Hanley followed Carrie’s career from a distance. He has long used Carrie an example when speaking with surgical candidates, proof that heart conditions shouldn’t deflate big dreams. Carrie was an abstract for a dozen years. Seeing him in person proved a powerful moment.
“It’s extraordinarily rewarding,” Hanley said shortly after the reunion. “It’s one thing to get a letter or news someone has graduated from high school or even from kindergarten, but to be here in person and see what they’ve accomplished is really quite something. There are no words for it.”
Carrie’s forever thankful to doctors and support staff who helped him recover, and repays that kindness by inspiring younger kids to dream big and be proud of their arduous journey.
Looking back, Carrie wouldn’t alter his path. The scar Carrie used to loathe is now a badge of honor, a link to his past and the plight of so many others battling for their lives.
“I see it and it motivates me every day to fight and be an example,” Carrie said, “a (testament) to others that are battling these types of conditions.”
Photo courtesy: SandWaveMedia