In My Own Words: Greg Olsen

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On Thursday night, the NFL announced that tight Greg Olsen was the Carolina Panthers nominee for the 2017 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award. This marks the third consecutive year that Olsen was named the team's nominee. Last year, he was one of three finalists for the prestigious honor.

By Greg Olsen

IN 2012, my wife and I had twins. It was obviously very exciting for us to be able to bring not just one but two children into this world.

Unfortunately, our excitement and joy turned to pain.

Our son, T.J., was born with a very serious congenital heart defect called hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a birth defect that affects normal blood flow through the heart and keeps oxygen-rich blood from getting to the rest of the body.

Despite the devastating news, we were very fortunate that we received really good care here at Levine Children's Hospital in Charlotte. The care, the surgeons, the nurses, the team and the community was incredible. We felt like we owed them a lot. They made everything so much easier for us.

After T.J. had his first couple surgeries, we were fortunate enough to have an in-home on-duty nurse that lived with us and helped us take care of T.J. He required so much professional medical attention early on, and I think that was a big part as to why T.J. improved the way he did and thrived.

The whole experience was the impetus for us to start The HEARTest Yard. In its original form, it was a in-home private duty medical care program that we gave free of charge to all families born with congenital heart disease which then improved to the entire congenital heart population at Levine Children's Hospital that qualified for our program.

We would meet the needs of the family and child, both medically and physically, through our program. We provided in-home, private nursing care, physical therapy and speech therapy benefits. Essentially, we knew how hard it was as a family with a child going through this and we wanted to help soften the blow.

Over the years, we certainly tried to expand the awareness and impact of the program through a bunch of different events in the Charlotte community. It was so encouraging to see people pour their time and support into this program. We were able to completely fund the in-home need for the congenital heart patients at Levine.

But we also knew that we needed to take the next step. Earlier this year, the hospital came to us and asked if we would be willing to expand our scope and efforts by launching what's being called a cardiac neurodevelopment center.

There's an incredible need that's being filled at the neo-natal level and now more and more of these kids are living and entering the population because the acute care has gotten so good. But we're seeing more and more of these kids struggle as a result of their early medical interventions as babies. They're having long-term consequences as a result – learning difficulties, social, behavioral, cognitive functions.

So our thought in developing the cardiac neurodevelopment center is that is provides a multifaceted approach for caring for these kids other than their medical needs. T.J.'s needs didn't end with his heart, and the reality is with a lot of these heart kids, their needs don't end with their hearts. To be able to go to one facility and have one comprehensive program that will identify all the needs - the cognitive delays, speech delays, behavioral, social - all these huge things that are not only important in the cardiac world, but just important in raising your children. It's the first of its kind in the region and there's only a handful of them throughout the country. We're very proud to be able to bring one to the community.

For me, this entire charity and program isn't about putting my name on something and just letting it happen. This is a daily part of my wife and my life. If you work with our foundation, as a donor, a volunteer, an event organizer – you pretty much work with me or someone very close to me. We are the foundation. We tackle this on a day-to-day basis. If you email, I'm usually the one emailing you back. When people ask who to reach out to for more about the program, I'm the one who mails them the information. It's a very personal thing for us and something we enjoy spending a lot of time and energy on. I think that's one of the reasons why it's become as successful as it has.

From the time we first got here, on and off the field, this community has been great to my family and I. Through some of our hardest times, the community support, the support of this organization has been incredible. Now being able to reverse that and give back and put tangible programs in place that have such an impact on families that need them has been an incredible part of our life.

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