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Gracie’s heart touches the hearts of many

By James Grob,

Don’t let that heart-melting smile and silly sense of humor fool you. Even through she describes herself as “weird and energetic,” Gracie Opp is one tough kid.

You’re not going to find many 13-year-olds who come out of a ninth heart surgery thinking more about others than themselves.

“Thank you all so much for all of the great gifts and notes,” Gracie said Thursday night, via Facebook Messenger. “Thanks for praying for me and thinking of me. I have been doing really good lately, I’m even doing some schoolwork everyday.”

Gracie also gave a shout out to her Charles City Middle School classmates, who she said have been “so nice these past few weeks.”

“The school system has worked with us,” said Gayle Opp, Gracie’s mother. “We’ve had a lot of absences over the years, and they’ve just been incredible.”

The reason Gracie had to type those comments via Messenger? She can’t talk right now.

During her most recent heart surgery, on Tuesday, Oct. 27, at St Mary’s Hospital in Rochester, Minnesota, a nerve to her vocal fold was nicked, resulting in partial paralysis to her voice box and some problems swallowing liquids. Gracie has been told to rest her voice for a month.

“Right now, she can’t talk,” said Gayle. “She is a chatterbox, so this is killing her.”

The vocal situation is not uncommon and will likely resolve in a few weeks, and was just a minor glitch during Gracie’s tedious 12-hour open-heart surgery late last month. The rest of the procedure, thankfully, was quite successful.

“Once I hit the one-week mark from getting released; I’ve been doing really good,” Gracie wrote on her blog, two weeks after the surgery. “I feel more energetic. I feel more like myself — weird and energetic.”

Gracie was born with “basically half a heart,” according to her mother. She has a two-chamber heart, and the use of just one ventricle.

In one of her previous surgical procedures, when she was very young, doctors diverted the venous blood from the inferior vena cava and superior vena cava to the pulmonary arteries without passing through the morphologic right ventricle. This is known as a Fontan, and recently a leak developed, resulting in the need for the Oct. 27 surgery.

Her family has documented Gracie’s hospital stay, surgery and recovery on the Facebook page “Gracie’s Heart.”

“Gracie has taught us to not take anything for granted and to live each day to the fullest,” said Gayle Opp. “She’s taught us to not get as caught up in the tomorrows, but rather, live for the todays.”

Gayle Opp is currently the director at Hope For Life Pregnancy Center in Charles City, and she and her husband, Dr. Curtis Opp, came to Charles City in 1996 when they bought the Optometric Center. Gayle Opp also previously directed the home-school assistance program for the Charles City School District.

The Opps have five children, three of them now adults. The two youngest, Selah and Gracie, from China, were adopted.

Gracie was born with a rare heart defect, and Curtis and Gayle Opp went along with the adoption process and stood by Gracie’s bedside through months of difficult surgeries. Through many scary surgeries and many prayers, Gracie pulled through and miraculously overcame the grim prognosis at the time by doctors who gave her long odds of survival.

“She’s a little light, a little miracle,” Gayle said. “She’s pretty special. She has been a huge gift.”

Gracie’s giving nature set an example during her recovery from the recent surgery. While in the hospital during Halloween, Gracie wanted to make sure that all the kids in the cardiac section — as well as all the doctors and nurses — got treats. Gracie took it upon herself to put together little treat bags for everyone and distributed them via wheelchair.

It’s not really a surprise, after all the surgical procedures Gracie has been through, that she was able to take this one in stride. She was released from the hospital after a week, and has been recovering at home and doing more and more of the things typical 13-year-olds do.

Open arriving home, Gracie was able to sleep well, eat well, do her treatments, and find time for TV, gaming, and adult coloring books on the patio — out in the the fresh air in sunshine. She said Wednesday evening that she was back to doing some schoolwork.

“We went for a walk this afternoon and she feels great,” Gayle said Wednesday. “It’s been a couple of years, I think, since she’s felt great.”

Gayle said that Gracie’s oxygen saturation levels had been in the 70s, and are now in the 90s, where they need to be.

“I think we’re going to really see a change in how she can tolerate exercise,” she said. “Even now, she’s doing well, just a couple weeks out.”

Gayle said the outpouring of support from friends, neighbors and even total strangers through the ordeal has been overwhelming.

“The community has just been fantastic,” she said. “Gracie had so many gifts and cards in the hospital, the nurses and doctors were amazed.”