David Ortiz hits it out of the park for kids
The David Ortiz Children’s Fund has financed more than 1,200 life-changing heart surgeries for children.
The name David Ortiz will forever be associated with Red Sox baseball. As a professional, he played with finesse and power under pressure, becoming a 10-time MLB All-Star, perennial crowd favorite and three-time world champion.
Known to fans as “Big Papi,” Ortiz’s legendary stature in both his native Dominican Republic and the United States is not confined to baseball. Beyond the game he loves, Ortiz’s resume includes funding more than 1,200 life-changing surgeries for children with congenital heart disease through the David Ortiz Children’s Fund.
Over the past 10 years, the DOCF has trained a new generation of pediatric heart surgeons and built an international fundraising network dedicated to correcting heart defects in children.
“We’ve got a team behind us not only watching our finances, but cheering for us, helping us get the word out, helping us raise funds and bringing on other partners within Chase where it makes sense.”
– Laura Probst, Executive Director, David Ortiz Children’s Fund
A lifesaving encounter
After a morning of playing baseball with his son in the Dominican Republic, David Ortiz volunteered to visit a youth hospital where children were recovering from heart surgery.
“David saw a two-year-old boy in the hospital hooked up to a lot of tubes, who reminded him of his own son,” says Laura Probst, executive director of the DOCF. “The little boy’s parents had brought him to the hospital because they were supporting several other children and couldn’t afford his heart surgery. They wanted the boy to be as comfortable as possible until he passed.”
The plight of this child inspired a personal mission in Ortiz, who paid for the boy’s surgery and later couldn’t stop thinking about the children he’d visited. Despite facing major-league pressure elsewhere in his life, Ortiz began urging friends, colleagues and corporate partners to fund life-changing heart surgeries for children.
A (very) young person’s disease
Congenital heart disease is the result of abnormalities in the heart that develop before birth. Symptoms include atypical heart rhythms, blue-tinted skin, shortness of breath, failure to feed or develop normally and swollen body tissue or organs.
In both the United States and the Dominican Republic, approximately one in 100 babies are born each year with congenital heart disease. Of those unable to receive heart surgery before age two, roughly 25% will die.
The Dominican Republic has few resources for helping low-income families manage expensive, specialized surgery. Ortiz partnered with Massachusetts General Hospital for Children and Boston Children’s Hospital to form a medical advisory board that shares best practices, operates alongside their Dominican counterparts and makes life-saving surgeries available to children in his two favorite places: Boston and the Dominican Republic.
The right diagnosis
The race to get surgeries underway adds complexity to operating on the small hearts of babies and children. If a child with congenital heart disease is misdiagnosed, crucial time is lost that could otherwise go toward planning surgery.
From observing conditions in the United States and the Dominican Republic, Ortiz and his team learned that better detection technologies could help identify heart disease more quickly and avoid a potentially lethal misdiagnosis.
“Specialized equipment has been critical for us in being able to help do proper detection, give accurate diagnosis and get children the care that they need,” Probst says. “We often have to go out and find patients to get them into the hospital. We set up a health clinic and let people walk-in. We’ll take our echocardiogram and have a doctor there and see a couple hundred kids in a single session.”
Partnerships amid the pandemic
The average cost to save a child diagnosed with congenital heart disease is $5,000, and the goal of the DOCF is to work with partners to never turn a child away.
“We get emails and during the pandemic, it’s been kind of overwhelming — sometimes hundreds in a week from parents who are so desperate for aid,” Probst says. “With the help of our partners, we’ve built networks for getting these children to the hospital. We get them seen and evaluated, and we help fund their heart surgery.”
The economic instability brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted nonprofit organizations that rely heavily on fundraising events and the generosity of the public. Despite these challenges, DOCF was able to fundraise through a 34-day celebration of the humanitarian accomplishments of the most famous number 34 to ever play the game, titled “34 Days for 34.” The events included online auctions, unique promotional products and celebrity allies rallying around Ortiz’s cause.
One of the events took place during a Red Sox game, where the DOCF filled the stands with cardboard cutouts of the children whom the organization has helped over the past decade. Ortiz joined the game’s broadcast and encouraged fans to donate $10 to help propel the DOCF forward through the next 10 years.
“We’re planning for the full year but also knowing that things could get canceled. We’re trying to stay in contact with all our donors and being clear with what we need,” Probst says. “When we set up our 10-year anniversary fundraising campaign, we said, ‘We’re not asking anybody for more than $10.’ We figured if they ended up being able to give more than $10, that would be amazing but $10 on its own goes a long way.”
Beyond these individual donors, Ortiz has leveraged his vast social media footprint to increase the number of children served and to help rally sponsors like Chase for Business, Vitamin Water and JetBlue.
“Kevin Peterssen at Chase has been really helpful with wire transfers, fraud protection and donor advocacy. He’s a great advocate, in addition to just making us feel like we’ve got a team behind us,” Probst says. “He is helping us get the word out, helping us raise funds and bringing on other partners within Chase where it makes sense. It’s a great relationship, and we really appreciate it.”
A lifelong bond
Mirroring Ortiz’s own passion, the DOCF and its doctors remain motivated by the bonds they form with their patients. During the organization’s 10-year anniversary celebration, survivors of congenital heart disease had a chance to personally thank Ortiz.
“These kids love to celebrate the scar from their heart surgery — their ‘zipper’ — and to show it off to David and our staff,” Probst says. “They are so excited to meet David, and he is in awe of their strength and how awesome it is to see them out playing baseball and doing the things that little kids should be doing.”
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