Tallahassee families unite as their children battle heart defects
February 23, 2020
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) – According to the Children's Heart Foundation, 1 in 100 children are born with a heart defect every year.
Congenital heart defects are the most common birth defect in the US, with around 40,000 a year. During Heart Awareness Month, WCTV sheds a light on two local boys, who fought through the unthinkable. Now, two families are stitched together for life.
"We were told it was never going to be a problem, but then it was,” Kelly Ashling says. Kelly is 4-year-old Korbin Ashling's mother. Korbin was born with a congenital heart defect.
For years, they did normal heart checkups and usually saw the hole get smaller. She says The impression she got from cardiologists was the hole would close on its own, and they would never have to do anything with it.
After years of watching and waiting, the time came for more drastic measures.
"This year's annual exam proved a little different than the previous years,” Kelly says. “So we found out we needed surgery, and we needed to do it very quickly."
Korbin also suffers from an autism and epilepsy disease, making him unable to speak with others.
"For me, making sure that he understood that what we were doing for him was necessary was going to make him feel better, even though it was going to make him feel worse for a little while," Kelly says.
The surgery itself was a huge preparation for the family and the home, a time Kelly says was one of the hardest moments in her life. She says she thought of the life and hardships that her son would have to face.
After surgery, patients are immunocompromised, meaning everything they touch and play with has to be sanitized. Kelly compares it to living with a newborn. Secondly, she thought about all of the time he would have to spend in isolation, and the recovery afterwards.
Although a difficult decision, Kelly knew what was best for her child and his health.
"To watch your baby suffer, to feel very helpless in that area. I could not hold him for four days, I had to watch from a hospital bed," she says. "And that was the hardest four days of my life, seeing everything hooked up to him. Tubes, wires, and all the monitors going off all the time. The few days that we waited for his heart to kick back on by itself and beep by itself and wondering if it was going to do that."
Another family shared Kelly’s struggles. For the Sewell’s, surgery is a normal part of their little Everett's life. He was diagnosed with a variant of tetralogy of fallot upon birth.
This all started when Jessica was 20 weeks pregnant.
She says a maternal fetal medicine specialist in Tallahassee found something that he wanted to get checked out. That’s when she was sent to Shands Hospital.
"Thinking 'This is just them being overly cautious, this is a huge precaution and we are going to come out of here with a huge story,' and that is not what happened," Jessica says.
When Everett was just 3 months old, they corrected his venteral septum defect. However, 18 months later, they went back to hospital and doctors found out the valve was too narrow.
"You want to fight it and you want to say 'No, we cannot go through this again,' and it was just so different knowing like OK, we are not going to be alone," Jessica says.
And they weren't. A local organization called The Hang Tough Foundation paired the two families.
As fate would have it, the boys would be having the same surgery, a day apart, and rooms away.
Kelly recalled what it meant to her.
"Feeling really alone and this new diagnosis and this new surgery, and this is such a life-changing event for our family, and being able to speak with someone else who has already been through this or that knows what to expect and then being a unit together at the same time, and we could literally walk down the hall, if I was having a hard time, she could tell me what to expect she could tell me what was coming," Kelly says.
Kelly also says that no matter what they were faced with, they had support, not only from Hang Tough, but also from a new found family.
"You cannot put a price tag on that, at all," she says.
"When he first started walking after surgery,” Jessica says while she held back tears. “We would walk them to each other’s rooms so they had a friend."
Almost a month later, the boys play, run, and smile. Both are healthy and happy, no longer with broken hearts. Recently, the two boys saw each other without their shirts for the first time.
"First thing Everett did,” Jessica says. “Just natural two year old behavior, he said I recognize that! And then he pointed to himself." He has a baby doll at home, and I had a friend add some stitching so that it would look like his scar, and I thought that would be the closest thing he would see to represent himself and now he has it in a friend."
The boys came out of surgery with much more than just stitches: A friendship holding a powerful bond.
"I think seeing Korbin seeing Everett have the same scars, it makes them feel more included,” Kelly says. “It makes them feel more together, that they are connected and they went through something together."
Although Korbin will not have to face a hospital bed again, Everett will.
But now, the duo has support and heart, like they never did before.
"Everett is not just surviving, he is actually thriving,” Jessica says. “And he has not done that in two years. And we are too."
"No matter what, we want our kids to feel included, we want them to feel accepted,” Kelly says. “And that is what these boys are going to do for each other."
"We are friends for life, this is not something,” Jessica says. “nothing can take away or change. They will always have each other."
Kelly says she wants to tell mothers to make sure you are getting all the healthcare you need when you are pregnant. She says you need to do your homework, your research, be informed and talk to your doctors.
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To follow Everett’s journey visit the