Angels seen, unseen help family's faith in facing child's heart disease

Monday , October 02, 2017 - 5:15 AM

JANAE FRANCIS, Standard-Examiner Staff

LAYTON — Gina and Matt O’Toole are glad they could rely on their faith the last two years, as they faced the possibility of losing their now 7-year-old son, Harrison.

Harrison was diagnosed with Atypical Kawasaki Disease in 2015. It’s a childhood blood vessel ailment that damaged his heart to the point of causing four heart attacks and requiring a pacemaker before his heart transplant in December, the parents said.

Harrison didn’t show typical symptoms of the disease so the diagnosis by Alvin Gabrielson, a doctor at Wee Care Pediatrics, was a miracle in itself. 

Gina said catching Harrison’s impending heart attacks and getting him to the hospital before they happened was also a miracle every time. She believes those miracles came about because of the great medical advice and diagnosis the family received.

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"(Harrison) had pain in the back and stomach and neck," she said. "He had a little nausea and some chest pain. ... They had warned us. They said he could be having a heart attack.”

Staying on top of oncoming heart attacks meant responding to many false alarms, the mother and father said. Because they were willing to react at even the possibility of problems, the family was in the hands of professionals every time Harrision had one of his four heart attacks.

“It’s pretty amazing when you look back on it,” Gina O’Toole said. “I look at things today that are pretty trivial. I don’t worry so much about them. ... Now, I can let go. ... Just spending time with my family is more important.

In October of 2015, Harrison experienced his first heart attack and also received a pacemaker that month, family members said. The height of their trial was during the procedure to put in the pacemaker — staff at Primary Children’s Hospital called a “code blue” for their son, signifying a life-threatening cardiac arrest. 

As medical personnel rushed around, furiously working to save their son’s life, the couple said time slowed for them — they felt a sense of peace fall all around them.

“We could feel the angels all around us,” Gina O’Toole said. “We knew at that moment that everything was going to be OK. Whether Harrison lived or died, we knew he was safe.”

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In August of 2016, he had another heart attack and doctors put a stent in. Harrison went into heart failure by October, said his parents said. In December, Harrison got a heart transplant.

“He’s been through a lot more than a lot of people would go through their whole lives,” said Matt O’Toole. 

The couple said they relied heavily on their faith, particularly during those four months. The strength of it defied their trials.

Now that they’re past it, they believe they are better equipped to face life’s challenges with conviction.

Matt O’Toole’s brother, Tyler O’Toole, said he’s seen the family grow.

“As the days and weeks wore on, they just got stronger,” he said.

He also gave credit to Harrison’s resilience.

“He has an inner strength,” Tyler O’Toole said. “I’m not sure where it comes from.”

He remembers watching Harrison carry on as the “happiest kid” in all circumstances.

“You would never know he was in heart failure,” Tyler O’Toole said, recalling a time when Harrison noticed he was bleeding and pointed out his situation in the most casual of ways.

“There is a lot of faith in that family,” Tyler O’Toole said. “Faith in God and also in the caregivers, the staff at Primary Children’s Hospital.”

As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Claudine Brinkerhoff, a neighbor who helped take care of the O’Tooles’ other two boys when Harrison faced medical emergencies, said Gina O’Toole continued serving as a counselor in the young women’s organization in her ward. In doing so, Brinkerhoff said Gina inspired others. 

These days, Harrison O’Toole appears to be just like any other second grader.

He plays soccer and runs around like the other children.

If you ask him about his long days in the hospital, he will tell you about making a volcano art project and playing Foosball when he got out. 

The family can’t thank the doctors and professionalism of Primary Children’s Hospital enough. Gina and Matt O’Toole said they both believe the caring touch of doctors who responded no matter what time or day they were needed resulted in Harrison’s life being spared.

One earlthy angel they won’t soon forget is a mother of another boy who had received an organ donation.

“We were really nervous about it,” Gina O’Toole said. “She really helped us to feel better about the process. ... He eventually passed away while we were there. I remember that same feeling that he was OK even though he had passed away.”

The family also recognizes the pain the donor’s family had to bear so that their son could live. The parents said they hope to encourage organ donation in any way possible.

They believe they also have been surrounded by many other earthly angels in the form of neighbors, friends and a teacher who helped whenever needed.

In September, Harrison received word from volunteers at the Make-A-Wish Foundation that they were granting him his wish of going to Disney World with his family next February. The volunteers dressed like characters in Star Wars and gave him his own Jedi costume for the party-like announcement.

Seeing the way volunteers treated their son that day gave the O’Tooles even more faith in humanity, they said.

“It’s neat to see someone who would care so much about doing something nice for someone they didn’t even know,” Matt O’Toole said. “Some of the people in the group that came had gone to three different events that day. It’s so amazing that they would do that.”

You may reach reporter JaNae Francis at or 801-625-4228. Follow her on Twitter at @JaNaeFrancisSE or like her on Facebook at 

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