The human heart is a convoluted organ that sustains life and creates the pulse for individuals to partake in physical activity. It is the engine that drives all athletes to participate and compete. Without a strong heart, however, the ability to engage in athletics is drastically hindered. While some may falter with damaged hearts, others thrive upon their disability and compete with bold courage. 11 year old Bobby Zabarsky is one of these audacious athletes who has battled whole heartedly throughout his life despite being born with essentially half a heart.
Zabarsky, who resides in Southbury, recently joined the Oxford Special Olympics program and competed in the annual Summer Games where he participated in swimming events and won several medals. His initial journey into the world, however, was a battle in and of itself. His mother, Trish Whitehouse, was 22 weeks pregnant with Zabarsky when her water unexpectedly broke. After being rushed to the Emergency Room, doctors told Whitehouse she had lost so much fluid that the integrity of the sac was compromised. Although ultrasounds showed that the baby was apparently healthy at the time, doctors believed she had lost so much fluid that something would happen to it later on if the pregnancy was not terminated. Abruptly ending the life of her baby, however, was an impossible decision.
“I couldn’t,” said Whitehouse. “After 22 weeks with a baby kicking inside of me I just couldn’t.”
Whitehouse, determined to deliver the baby, spent the next five months on bed rest.
“I meditated and I prayed and I had everyone in creation praying for me,” she said.
Miraculously, she stopped leaking fluid and was able to build enough back to support and maintain the baby. At 36 weeks in her pregnancy, she went into labor and delivered Bobby Zabarsky into the world at New Milford Hospital. Right after birth, however, Zabarsky had a heart murmur and had to be sent to Yale-New Haven Hospital.
“I was in the hospital and I couldn’t even leave to go with him,” said Whitehouse. “All I had was a tiny picture the doctors took of him. It was the worst thing in the world; my baby was someplace else and I just had a little picture.”
Zabarsky was born with a single ventricle in his heart. His left ventricle—the bigger and stronger one that is responsible for sending blood through the entire body—did not form properly. As a result, doctors had to rearrange his blood flow through his whole body from his right ventricle. Zabarsky had to go through a four step surgery in order to reroute his blood flow. His first surgery was at four days old, his second and third was at three months old, and his final one was at five and a half years old. To reward Zabarsky’s bravery in the surgeries, his parents got him a golden retriever after his last one.
“My parents were so glad they could keep me alive that my dad got me a dog as a present,” said Zabarsky.
Despite his heart condition, Zabarsky has been swimming since age four. Physically, Zabarsky had struggled to find a place of belonging on local swim teams because it’s difficult for him to keep up with everyone else. In addition to his heart condition, Zabarsky has language and cognitive delays resulting from hearing loss. Looking for a program that offered a more equal playing field, he finally joined Special Olympics, a nonprofit organization that provides athletic opportunities to individuals with intellectual disabilities.
“He doesn’t physically fit in with a regular team,” said Whitehouse. “There was no place for him to go for a while. He was always on the border; always in that grey area.”
Zabarsky joined the Oxford Special Olympics program in February. He recently competed at the 2012 Summer Games at Southern Connecticut State University where he swam in the freestyle, backstroke and 4x50 relay, and earned several awards including a gold medal.
“I liked it a lot,” said Zabarsky. “I won a lot of medals and ribbons.”
Zabarsky and his mother, along with the entire Oxford team, stayed two nights in college’s residence halls during the three day Summer Games and enjoyed the riveting experience.
“It was a fun blast,” said Zabarsky. “I didn’t want to go home. I wanted to sleep over there every night!”
For Whitehouse, the Oxford program has provided them an inclusive haven for her and her son.
“They were so welcoming,” said Whitehouse. “I would have thought that I’d been in that program for years and years the way they welcomed me. The coaches have known each other for decades. I don’t feel excluded. It’s extremely organized and they have so much experience.”
Before Special Olympics, the two experienced long stretches of exclusion and a disheartening disconnect from others.
“It’s very isolating,” said Whitehouse. “People can’t imagine what we went through. Sometimes being alone with that is a hard thing. I think people in Special Olympics get it. They all get it. Maybe they haven’t had their kids go through surgery, but they still get it.”
With half a heart, Bobby Zabarsky has finally found an outlet where friends are able to reach out and fill the other half with acceptance, love and joy. After all the adversity and battling just to survive, his mother is unquestionably proud of her son and his fearless courage.
“He’s been my biggest teacher,” said Whitehouse, “And he’s been my greatest gift.”
For more information on the Oxford Special Olympics program please contact Maureen Blees at firstname.lastname@example.org
Matt Vaghi will be a senior at Springfield College in Springfield, MA this fall. He is currently interning with Special Olympics Connecticut Northwest Region. If you would like to contact him, please email him at email@example.com.