**Twelve years ago today, on February 14th, Oakland Raiders cornerback TJ Carrie underwent open-heart surgery to fix a faulty coronary valve. He was just 16 years old.
While many people were enjoying Valentine's Day festivities, Carrie was under the knife.
No matter what age you are, undergoing this procedure is strenuous, and for a young man itching to play football, being away from the field wore on him.
Carrie describes his family growing up as a "football family," with all three of his brothers playing the sport he's grown to love. His condition however prevented him from playing contact sports, and he was unable to fully take the gridiron until his senior year of high school.
CB TJ Carrie visits the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford and reunites with the doctor who conducted Carrie's open-heart surgery to fix a faulty coronary valve 12 years ago.
Following his recovery and senior season, No. 38 went on to Ohio University, and was selected by the Raiders in the seventh-round of the 2014 NFL Draft (No. 219 overall). While Carrie's journey from the operating table to the NFL is a compelling story, it's what he's doing with his story that makes it far more special.
Wednesday afternoon, Carrie decided to pay a visit to the children at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford, and also reunite with a familiar face.
"We're here today to just share the experience with the kids, to see that there's other people in the world, other teenagers, other grown-ups who have been successful." Carrie said. "Just because you're going through whatever heart procedure it may be, you can still be successful and achieve anything you want."
At the time of his operation, Stanford Medical Doctor Frank Hanley had performed about a dozen procedures on patients with Carrie's condition – 11 years later he's completed over 100 – and Dr. Hanley is responsible for Carrie's ability to overcome the problem.
About a year ago, Carrie was introduced to Taylor Gamino, a fellow open-heart surgery patient who was also under the care of Dr. Hanley with a similar situation. Both Carrie and Gamino were born with congenital heart defects, which has brought the two together to help raise awareness, and on Valentine's Day, Dr. Hanley, Carrie, and Gamino were able to reconnect.
Gamino and Carrie have partnered to provide hope for "heart warriors" undergoing the same obstacles they went through as adolescents. The two met patients in the story corner, a beautifully designed, and tech-savvy playroom and library for children staying at the hospital. Carrie gifted each kid with a "TJ Carrie Heart Shadow Buddy." The buddy is intended to serve as a "friend like me," which has an incision down the chest, encouraging kids to be proud of their scars, and reaffirm that they aren't alone in this process.
The way each child's face lit up with joy truly put into perspective how much we take for granted. Often, we don't appreciate all life has to offer, and these kids, who have been through more than most of us, were ecstatic to receive a simple teddy bear. Many patients recovering from heart conditions have to relearn how to walk, eat, even breathe, and it was obvious their spirits were lifted to see someone in Carrie's position visit to share his story with them.
"Being able to communicate with them has been a tremendous feat, because they see me, and I see them, and we're all on the same level," Carrie explained. "So it's been a blessing to just communicate with them, and really just explain the process is going to be a tough road, but the road will be a little easier with the amount of things they're able to do nowadays."
While Carrie's experiences can serve as a beacon of hope, he wants survivors to value their scars, and let that be the defining moment in their life that helps them become the person they're meant to become.
"I would never take my heart surgery away," he said. "I think the biggest thing I continue to stress, that a lot of people probably don't know about me, it was because of my heart surgery I've been able to be so driven and so optimistic and dedicated, and motivated to continue to want to work hard in life and be who I am. I would never take it back because I think without it I would be a different person today… I challenge all the kids who go through that procedure to take a look at what they're going through and let it be a staple for who they're going to be for the rest of their lives."