Heart of Gold
Maceo Alvarez likes a lot of sports—but nothing compares with his love for football. “He’s like a football addict,” his mother, Monique Esparza, says.
“You get to catch, you get to run, you get to juke, you get to spin,” says the 8-year-old Monrovia second grader. “You can also jump if they dive for your legs.”
Last fall, for the first time, Maceo got to play on a football team. At the start of the season, he set out with his mom to pick up his gear, including cleats, uniforms and one extra item: special padding to protect his pacemaker.
Monique was admittedly nervous. Maceo not only has a pacemaker, but he’s also undergone 13 surgeries, including six open-heart surgeries, as a result of being born with tricuspid atresia, a rare heart condition in which the tricuspid valve doesn’t develop in the womb. The defect blocks proper blood flow to the lungs and caused the right side of Maceo’s heart to be severely underdeveloped. The tricuspid valve can’t be replaced, so patients undergo a series of surgeries to reroute blood flow through the body. Football—even the flag football Maceo is playing—wasn’t exactly doctor recommended. In fact, it was doctor forbidden. So said Michael Silka, MD, one of Maceo’s cardiologists at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
“Dr. Silka kept telling him, ‘No, no, no, no, no,’” Monique says.
But Maceo had a counter. His stepdad had told him about D.J. Hayden, a cornerback for the Oakland Raiders who suffered a near-fatal heart injury in college that had to be surgically repaired. So on the next visit to Silka, Maceo came prepared. “D.J. Hayden plays for the Raiders in the NFL and he has a scar just like mine,” he told the doctor. “So I’m playing football.”
Silka eventually relented and Maceo joined a team. What’s more, Maceo and Hayden developed a friendship, after Monique tagged Hayden in an Instagram photo of her son. Hayden responded, and the two have been Facebook friends ever since. This past summer, Maceo spent a day at the Raiders’ training camp in Napa, California, at Hayden’s invitation.
It was Monique’s instinct to say no to her son’s football aspirations as well, but when she saw his excitement at finally being healthy enough to play the game he loves, she couldn’t.
“He’s determined,” she says. “He wants to do everything you tell him he can’t do.”
Although Maceo is doing well, his battles aren’t over. A few months back, he was suffering from a severe lack of energy and sleeping all day. “He just wasn’t himself,” Monique says. “He didn’t want to play football. Didn’t even pick up a football for a few months.”
Maceo had developed pulmonary hypertension, and was put on a new medication to control it. If the medicine doesn’t work, he may ultimately need a heart transplant. Monique says outward signs are positive, though she can’t be sure until another catheterization is done.
“I can’t say 100 percent it’s working, but ever since he’s been on this medication, I can look at him and tell you that he’s in a way better place than he was a few months ago.”
That’s good news not only for Maceo and his family, but also for other heart patients at CHLA, who can expect to again be the recipients of Maceo’s kindness this holiday season. Two years ago on Halloween, as he was being discharged after an inpatient stay, Maceo spotted someone bringing Halloween costumes into the hospital. Happy to learn that the kids in the hospital would be able to have Halloween, it got him thinking ahead.
“How is Santa Claus going to get into the hospital if there’s no chimney?” he asked his mom.
Maceo declared that he would be Santa Claus and bring presents to the hospital. Monique quickly organized a toy drive and returned with Maceo in December with gifts for every child in the Heart Institute. That began what is now an annual holiday event.
“They’re stuck in the hospital, like I was,” Maceo says. “So we’re going to bring Christmas to them.”
What motivates him to do the toy drive each year? He has a succinct answer: “Because I’m helping the kids.”