SOCCER: Boy with heart transplant plays soccer thanks to The Simon Keith Foundation; Henderson golf tournament benefit set for the foundation October 24.
– Dressed in yellow soccer gear with long, bumpy socks, seven-year old Christopher Rodriguez stood on the soccer field early in September, waiting to play in his first little-league game. His teenage brothers Junior and Luis stood by him. His mother and father looked on, anxious, yet eager.
This was a big day for the family, emotional beyond the excitement of the game and the new season.
At 15 months old, Christopher was diagnosed with restrictive cardiomyopathy. Though his parents Humberto and Alma felt fortunate he was able to receive a heart transplant after only three months of waiting, they have lived with the heaviness of knowing doctors only expected him to live a few years.
“When we were in the consultation for the heart transplant,” said Alma, “the time frame that we were given was five to ten years for Christopher after the transplant. So we had that constant fear. He hit the six year mark, and I thought, now I only have four more years.”
In 2012 Christopher’s health took a downturn, and he was being hospitalized every three months. During that time Alma started working at the Nevada Donor Network, a Las Vegas based organ procurement organization. After talking to coworkers about living with the uncertainty of her son’s condition, she was introduced to Chief Operating Officer Simon Keith.
Keith, an organ donor recipient and former UNLV soccer player turned professional athlete, is known as one of the longest living heart transplant recipients in the world.
“I learned that (Keith) was 28 years out from his own heart transplant and had played professional soccer after receiving his transplant. He became my inspiration.”
Meeting Keith gave Alma hope.
“Knowing that he was 28 years out from his transplant, I thought, ‘There’s no ten year mark! We may actually see Christopher grow, get married, and go to school!’
“I shared his story with my family, and then we all considered him our inspiration!
“I introduced him to Christopher and they became best buddies. Christopher expressed that he loved to play soccer, that his dad and brothers played soccer, and he wanted to do it, too.”
A year earlier in 2011, Keith had started The Simon Keith Foundation to benefit young organ transplant recipients. Rather than alleviating medical costs, Keith’s foundation primarily grants scholarships to pay for athletic training for children with transplants who want to develop a healthy and active lifestyle. He referred Alma to the Downtown Las Vegas Soccer Club where the foundation has since outfitted Christopher in his yellow team gear and covered every related cost.
“Chris stands for everything that I am,” said Keith. “He’s a soccer player now, and he is fearless. He doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with him, because there isn’t. That’s really why I do this. I probably get 50 emails a week from people around the country who are faced with this and there’s a need. So I decided I’d be the guy to fill it.”
“I’m an organ recipient from many, many years ago,” he continued. “I received a heart transplant in 1986 and was able to play professional soccer after that. I didn’t talk about it for a long time.
“As the 25th year of having the organ was coming up, I decided I would write a book. As part of that I traveled overseas to Wales, where I got the heart, and met the family. It was a cathartic moment for me, and I decided to start talking about it.
“I was sort of able to leverage my profile, and one of the things I felt really strongly about was, there’s this thought out there that if you have an organ transplant you’re sort of handicapped and crippled for life, and there’s a whole bunch of built-in excuses for you not to be active. That frustrated me. So I set up a foundation, and the foundation is really geared toward the kids. Any kid who’s had an organ transplant, our foundation supports them in their desire to return back to activity and a healthy lifestyle.
“I Started the foundation in 2011. I wrote the book and all the proceeds from the book go to the foundation. I do public speaking, I do keynote speeches around the country and all those funds go to the foundation.”
It’s been the best thing I’ve ever done in my life, without a doubt.
Keith has found that many have looked to him for the same hope the Rodriguez family sought.
“It’s tough,” Keith said. “If you’re a parent and you hear the words ‘your child needs an organ transplant to live,’ that’s tough. Your life changes. So, they’re sort of grasping for any sort of silver lining.
“I get a lot of emails from different people. Some of the most rewarding say, ‘I just had no idea that you could live this long with an organ transplant; I had no idea you could be this healthy for this long.’
“Organ transplants work very well nowadays. They are real good, long-term solutions. But, still it’s very emotional. So, when they can find someone who has lived a full life, and continues to, it’s really helpful. I get a lot of that communication.
“When you go through this traumatic, life-changing experience,” he continued, “you get a lot of pressure, a lot of medical bills, financial pressures. All this stuff happens. You get on the other side of it if you’re lucky enough to get an organ, and you’ve got a kid who now is sort of different. You have to be careful, and you still have all these pressures, all the medical bills.
“So the foundation is just for these kids to get back on the field and be a kid again. Sports and other activities aren’t cheap anymore, so if we can spend $500 or $1000 to $2,000 dollars on a kid and take the burden off the parents to buy the new soccer boots or the new baseball glove, it’s a gift!
“It’s just awesome! It’s been the best thing I’ve ever done in my life, without a doubt.”
“It’s small, sort of a niche thing. We all have our places in life. This is going to be my legacy, I think.”
Standing together on the soccer field, Christopher seemed ready to stop talking and start playing, innocently unaware of the miracle his family was seeing in the moment.
“It is emotional to see him,” said Alma, “because when he was thirteen months old he couldn’t walk like a normal child. He couldn’t talk and sit up on his own. We never saw that with Christopher. So, all of this is very touching. It allows him to see and experience life in a different way, and it is really hard to express.”
When asked what they thought about their little brother playing soccer that day, both Junior and Luis were too emotional to speak.
“It’s hard to explain,” Humberto attempted. “It feels good just to see him run, to see him enjoy the sport that I play. Not knowing if he was ever going to be able to play, seeing him run, seeing him have fun — it’s great!
“Thanks to the foundation, he’s experiencing something beautiful, something we couldn’t afford, that’s for sure. I just want to say thanks.” | iH
The Simon Keith Foundation will host its first annual golf tournament fundraiser Friday, October 24 at the Revere Golf Course in Henderson. The event will include dinner and a silent auction. For more information visit www.thesimonkeithfoundation.com or call 702-433-0729.