By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
Harry Zuckerman didn’t cry when he was born 17 years ago in Ridgewood, New Jersey. Doctors immediately suspected something might be wrong.
Within days, Harry was diagnosed with Tetralogy of Fallot, a congenital heart defect that changes the flow of blood through the heart. It occurs in about one of 2,500 births in the United States each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Harry had surgery when he was 5 months old. Surgeons implanted a pig valve to help his heart work correctly.
For seven years, the valve did its job.
But when Harry was in first grade, he began to tire easily. He couldn’t keep up with the other kids on the playground, and he became winded when he ran.
His mother took him back to the doctor, and Harry and his family learned it was time to have the valve replaced.
“The valve didn’t grow me with me,” said Harry, who recalls being anxious about the surgery. “I couldn’t remember the first one, but this one kind of scared me.”
Harry also felt separated from other kids because of his heart condition. He wanted to share his fear with someone, but was afraid to.
“I just felt different, and I didn’t want to feel that way,” Harry said.
Before the surgery, Kyle Pearlman was over at Harry’s house for a play date. Harry wanted to tell Kyle about the surgery but wondered whether he should. Would Kyle understand? What if he laughed?
As they played, Harry summoned up his courage.
“I’m going to have surgery because my heart needs to be fixed,” Harry told Kyle.
Kyle said, “Oh, OK,” and the boys kept on playing.
“When it came out, it made all that fear go away, and everything shifted,” Harry said.
Kyle had taken Harry’s news to his own heart. After Harry had surgery a few weeks later at Columbia University Medical Center Children’s Hospital, Kyle was one of the first to be there.
“I remember walking in, and it smelled like a hospital,” Kyle recalled. At first, he was a bit afraid, but once he saw his friend, he couldn’t wait to push Harry down the hall in a wheelchair.
Kyle read stories to Harry in the hospital room. Their bond, already strong, was cemented in love and understanding during that time. They have remained best friends.
Six years later, the boys were turning 13, reaching the age of their bar mitzvahs. Their mothers encouraged them to answer the call to do something to help heal the world, as is asked of boys becoming a bar mitzvah.
Harry and Kyle decided to write a book on the healing power of friendship when a child has heart disease or is sick. They wanted to do so to help other children learn that it’s OK to be ill and to talk about it. They wanted to share how friends of the sick person can show kindness and understanding. And they wanted to donate any proceeds from the book to charity.
The result was Friends Help Hearts Heal, a poignant story of how friendship made all the difference to Harry and how it can make a difference for other children, too.
“It shows you can be there for someone and make all the difference for them,” said Harry.
“It was unreal,” Kyle said of the excitement of publishing the book and being able to help others. “It was such a cool feeling.”
The boys went to children’s hospitals and read the book to children. They’ve donated $15,000 raised so far from proceeds to two children’s hospitals.
Now, both seniors in high school, the boys likely won’t end up at the same universities. Harry wants to be a cardiologist, and Kyle wants to go into human development.
But they hope their friendship, strengthened by how they responded to a life-threatening disease, will forever stand as an example of how friends can help heal hearts.