Sept. 7, 2021 — For 15 years, the UF Health Congenital Heart Center has offered patients of all ages comprehensive care for congenital heart disease and acquired heart diseases.
The center recently marked its 15th anniversary with a virtual celebration. The spirited event brought together center faculty and staff members, patients, family members, musical guests and others to share their stories and celebrate the center’s history and successes. The program also unveiled a surprise announcement: a new endowment to support the UF Health Congenital Heart Center.
As part of the anniversary celebration, Mark S. Bleiweis, M.D., director of the UF Health Congenital Heart Center, spoke about his vision for the future and announced the need for a new endowment at UF Health, which would assist in funding the greatest needs of the congenital heart center to allow the team to continue their work into the future. Bleiweis began by outlining a fundraising goal of $100,000 to start the fund and described how he would be working in the coming year to achieve that goal.
“Over the next year, you’ll hear from us as we seek to establish an endowment here at UF Health Congenital Heart Center, which is going to be a fund that will last in perpetuity, providing funding to meet the greater needs of the Congenital Heart Center as we evolve and grow over time,” Bleiweis explained.
His patients and their families had a surprise for him though, as one by one they made on-the-spot contributions toward the new endowment.
First to announce their families’ support were patients Christina Cinca and Grayson Padgett, sharing a $50,000 donation from the Cinca-Bacardi family and a $50,000 donation from the Hunter family, respectively. A final donation of $50,000 was announced by Kris DenBesten on behalf of his family, bringing the surprise total to $150,000.
Within minutes, the Congenital Heart Center Excellence Endowment had exceeded its initial establishment goal. This generous gesture was clearly a surprise to Bleiweis and his team, who were visibly moved and grateful.
“Our goal is to make sure that this congenital heart center can celebrate 15 and 30 and 45, and then I will be forever happy and grateful; I’m so thankful for all of you,” said Bleiweis in response to the surprise funding.
“If it were not for Dr. Bleiweis and his team, I would not be here today,” shared Gracyn DenBesten Harrison of Orlando.
Gracyn received a lifesaving heart transplant in 2009 after months on the Berlin Heart®. Today, Gracyn is a 2021 graduate of the University of Florida and enjoying life as a newlywed. She was one of several patients who shared how the care they received from the UF Health Congenital Heart Center made a difference.
“We love healing hearts. That’s why we’re here, that’s why I know I’m on this earth. And I hope I’m here for a very long time to fulfill my promise that I’ll continue to do this for as long as I have the skills and the capacity to. And I hope that I can continue to help build the team that we have, which is second to none,” shared Bleiweis, who is also the William G. Lassiter Jr. and Aneice R. Lassiter Professor of the UF Health Congenital Heart Center.
The center is part of the pediatric cardiology and heart surgery program at UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital, which U.S. News & World Report ranks as the No. 7 pediatric cardiology and heart surgery program in the nation. It is also the top-ranked pediatric cardiology and heart surgery program in the state of Florida.
The cardiac team was the first in Florida to use the Berlin Heart® Ventricular Assist Device (a pediatric VAD), and the SynCardia® Total Artificial Heart.
Integral to the center’s growth and success is beloved pediatric cardiologist F. Jay Fricker, M.D., who arrived in 1995 and led the pediatric cardiology division at the UF College of Medicine until 2014. Fricker also served as medical director for the UF Health Congenital Heart Center from its inception through 2014, helping shape the program into the nationally recognized center it is today.
“I came to the University of Florida 25 years ago because I knew UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital had a long history of excellence in caring for infants and children with congenital heart disease,” Fricker said. “My dream was to build on that legacy and develop a congenital heart center that would care for all children, from the fetus to the adult patient with congenital heart disease. For the past 15 years, Bleiweis and his colleagues have led the center to be the referral center for many complex patients with congenital heart disease in the state of Florida. Now, our children’s hospital is ranked seventh in the nation for pediatric cardiology and heart surgery.”
As the UF Health Congenital Heart Center celebrates 15 years, fundraising efforts to grow the Congenital Heart Center Excellence Endowment will continue to ensure the long-term success of the program.