No child should have to endure five open-heart surgeries before the age of 14. Not only has Andrew Reichert, a resilient Linden, Michigan resident, endured them -- he’s overcome them in ways that didn’t originally seem plausible. Andrew has dealt with the unrelenting effects of Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome (HLHS) since birth. His mother said that kind of life is all he’s ever known. That’s why she isn’t exactly surprised that the teen takes every health hiccup in stride and bounces back each time. “He doesn’t know any different because this has always been his life, but he has to work a lot different because of the physical challenges that he has,” said Annette Reichert, in a phone interview with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. “He always has to rest more and always has to remember to take medication. But we just keep doing it, day by day.”
HLHS is a severe congenital heart defect in which the left side of the heart is underdeveloped. Andrew was born with an abnormally small left ventricle and narrow aorta. Doctors told Andrew’s family he could not survive without undergoing open-heart surgery to correct the defects, which he did three times before his 3rd birthday. For the next 10 years, Reichert, an avid Detroit sports fan, enjoyed the kind of life that most boys his age enjoy. His cardiologist kept close tabs on him, so Andrew was able to take part in all the things he loved, like playing baseball and basketball at school with his friends. Andrew’s personal favorite moment as an athlete was when he was the starting pitcher for his third-grade baseball team in a championship game. “I remember giving up a home run on the first pitch,” he said. Just as he bounces back time and time again from heart complications, Andrew and his team bounced back that day to claim the first-place trophy, despite the opposing team’s home run. “We still won the championship,” Andrew added. It was spring 2021 when concerning symptoms started to resurface for Andrew. “His stamina was down,” Annette said. “He used to be able to play doubleheaders without any issue, but he was then having to sit out the second game. He wasn’t able to run as fast and he got super tired.” Andrew had always dealt with a leaky tricuspid valve, but around this time, he had an echocardiogram that revealed that the problem had worsened. Then at just 13 years old, Andrew had to endure a 13-hour surgery to repair the valve. Otherwise, he would have needed to have an artificial valve implanted. The surgery was initially deemed a success, but after a few days, Andrew experienced complications. Before doctors could schedule another surgery to have a mechanical valve and pacemaker implanted, Andrew went into cardiac arrest.
“He was put on life support because his heart wasn’t beating in rhythm, he went into (Ventricular tachycardia),” Annette said, of the scary August 2021 evening. “He was stable enough to have the surgery and get the artificial valve and the pacemaker.” After Andrew overcame the latest hurdles his condition placed in front of him, he spent another week recovering at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor. It was during that recovery that a photo of Andrew went viral online, after he was pictured celebrating the 500th home run of Detroit Tigers star Miguel Cabrera on Aug. 23. When Andrew was first admitted into the hospital last August, Annette and Andrew’s father, Brad, set up an “Andrew Journey’s” Facebook group page to document Andrew’s battle against HLHS, garnering support from the family’s community in the process. When the photo of Andrew raising his arms in triumph from his hospital bed made the rounds on social media, the family gathered even more support from well-wishers across Michigan. Including the Detroit Tigers organization itself. "I don't even remember who or how it got started, but somebody who does something on Twitter with the Tigers shared (the photo) and it just became this huge thing," Annette said. "He got all of this memorabilia from the Tigers and we got to go to the celebration for the 500th home run, when they honored Miguel. I think it was just emotional because it was right after he had come out of his second surgery." After he was discharged, Andrew was put on a blood-thinning medication called warfarin. His family is closely monitoring his diet, as sudden increases in vitamin K intake can decrease the effect of the blood thinners, his mom said. “He had to have his blood tested, at first, several times a day,” said Annette, whose family carries Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan health insurance. Once Andrew’s International Normalized Ratio (INR) was deemed optimal, his blood tests were scaled back to just once a week. Routine INR measurements help healthcare providers know whether a person’s warfarin is at the right dose or if the dose needs to be changed.
Andrew has endured a myriad of medical conditions in the past seven months. His mom said he’s now much more susceptible to bruising than most people. He has nerve damage and is subsequently taking pain medication, which Annette said has been a particularly challenging residual effect of the recent surgeries. “When he first came out, he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t dangle his legs off the side of the bed without feeling excruciating pain,” Annette said. “So, he’s now in physical therapy three times a week. He was in a wheelchair, but he’s doing so much better now. He’s able to go to school and walk around.” Despite the various medications and nerve issues, Andrew made his way back to the basketball court and baseball fields this year. “He played a minute or two each quarter,” Annette said. “He’s been working hard at baseball. He’s able to pitch quite well. Hitting and running, we’re not sure. He’s just getting ready for 8th grade baseball season. The travel team he tried out for before surgery kept him, which, not every team would.” Andrew celebrated his 14th birthday on March 25. In a touching Facebook post addressed to her son, Annette called Andrew an “absolute miracle. A strong-willed, loving miracle.” She isn’t sure what the future holds for her son but does know he’s going to keep moving forward. And she and Brad will be there every step of the way. “He’s not where he was, but he’s gone from not even being able to walk to what he’s doing now, playing sports again a little bit here and there,” she said. “We just keep pushing.” Photo credit: Brad and Annette Reichert Keep reading: