A few years after getting married and after having their first child, Grey, Jeff and Cortney Given came to BYU–Hawaii only to learn a few months later they needed to move back to the mainland to save their unborn daughter Zola’s life.
Despite having a child with a congenital heart disease, they said they have maintained a positive view on the world through prayer and faith, and do everything they can to share that light with others.
“She has half a heart, and she’ll never have a whole heart, even with the surgeries. They just make half the heart do the whole job,” explained Zola’s dad Jeff Given, a senior from California majoring in accounting.
“In the short term, it means she is going to have to have three surgeries in her first three years. When she was 1 day old, she had her first open-heart surgery. She was in the hospital for nine weeks recovering and had lots of ups and downs. Technically, she died for 33 minutes and they saved her life. She had her second surgery at 6 months old.”
Cortney Given, a junior from California majoring in exercise science, said her personal struggles started much earlier life. She said she grew up in an unstable and dysfunctional family environment. She is the only member of the Church in her family and was baptized when she was 12.
In her teenage years, she said she moved in with her grandma to find stability, but due to financial issues, she ended up moving around and living with different people. “I lived with two different people in my ward for a year, and then someone else offered to let me live with them. The second counselor in my bishopric, who I used to babysit for, said I could live with them permanently if I wanted. I lived with them for a year and a half. Then I moved in with my bishop… and his wife for two years before I moved out.”
After a few years of marriage, Jeff and Cortney said they followed promptings to come to BYUH. Cortney said moving to Hawaii helped them simplify their lives and realize all they needed was each other.
FINDING OUT ABOUT ZOLA
Cortney became pregnant with Zola soon after moving to Hawaii. She said, “I knew really strongly when we were supposed to have Zola. We got pregnant quickly, and I was happy, but [Jeff] was super stoked and ready for another kid. We were excited because we knew [Grey] needed a sibling.”
She then described the day they found out Zola had a heart defect. “I had just come from the mainland. [Jeff] picked me up from the airport, and we went straight to the hospital. I had scheduled the appointment to go to the anatomy scan where they check the organs and the gender. We were both super exhausted and he had a basketball game to go to. [Grey] was super cranky from being on the plane. I was 18 weeks pregnant.”
Cortney said, “They were super far behind, so by the time we were seen we were super annoyed and frustrated. We got back there and it was taking way longer than normal. We just kept looking at each other and eye rolling. Cortney said Grey was screaming when a nurse came in and told them that she had found something on the heart and needed to check with the doctor.
“Then four doctors came in and sat right beside us ...They started to tell us it was hypoplastic left heart syndrome, but as soon as they said, ‘The left side of your baby’s heart’ I was like, ‘It’s hypoplastic left heart syndrome.’ The second counselor I used to babysit for, their son has hypoplastic left heart syndrome, which is super rare.”
Jeff added, “1 out of 5,000 babies has that heart condition, and that’s the same family she lived with in high school whose son had it.”
Cortney continued, “I [said], ‘Oh my gosh,’ and I was bawling. Jeff was bawling because he didn’t know what was going on… I knew the basics of it. [The doctors] said, ‘So you know the baby is going to need immediate surgery and possibly a heart transplant?’ I was like, ‘Yeah,’ and Jeff was like, ‘Is our baby going to live? I’m so confused.’ I felt so bad for him because they just ignored him completely and were focused on me.
“They talked... Then they left, and we cried… I immediately called Natalie (a family friend), whose son has hypoplastic left heart syndrome, and we called our family. We drove home really confused and sad.”
Jeff said they were told they would have to move back to the mainland to have Zola, as the surgeries necessary to save her life were not available in Hawaii.
“We had only been here a couple months at that point, and then they said we had to move by the end of February or the beginning of March… It worked out well because it was trimesters then, so the semester ended at the end of February. We left right after that and [Zola] was born in April. As far as bad situations go, the timing worked out really well.”
THE TRUTH ABOUT PRAYER
Jeff said the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints changed their view on their situation. “We had an interesting perspective because we would pray and pray and pray. Especially for the first part when it was a struggle, we felt like we had to accept God has a plan for us.
“It really strengthened our testimony in a sense that we understand that not everything is going to be perfect. Even if we did lose her, it doesn’t mean God doesn’t love us or the Church isn’t true; it just means that’s how it was supposed to be.”
Cortney elaborated, saying, “We felt like our prayers weren’t being answered, so we were so frustrated. We feel like, ‘We want to save our kid’s life, and this is a righteous desire. So why isn’t God blessing us with the things we’re praying for?”
“It was really humbling because we realized praying isn’t a wish granting machine. It’s a way to communicate with God and align our wills, even when our desires aren’t the same. We just had to accept what was going to happen was going to happen.
“Our reaction mattered, and our attitude mattered more than anything. It was more about faith and humility and just accepting whatever God handed us.”
SUPPORT AND SEPARATION
Cortney said having someone who understood what they were experiencing was a huge blessing. “Sometimes when you talk to people when you have a sick kid, you get some crazy responses. We got some that were like, ‘You just need to pray for a miracle. God’s going to heal her heart. Nothing is wrong with her. Ultrasounds are wrong all the time.’ That was the worst thing to hear. I was like, ‘No, we’re just going to accept this and move on.’
“It’s hard enough to hear she has a heart defect. I know God still loves me whether or not my kid has a heart defect. Being able to have Natalie around to talk about all the problems [was a blessing]. She flew out for [Zola’s] first surgery.”
Following Zola’s birth and first surgery, Cortney said Jeff had to return to school in Hawaii while she had to stay in California. “We realized he had to go back to school because we were already behind… and he couldn’t postpone any more.
“He had to come back for sure, and [Zola] couldn’t fly, so we were like, ‘What’s the best thing?’ So, we split the kids up. I stayed with Zola in California with family, and he came out here with [Grey]. We were apart for three months. They flew out for her surgery for a week, and then they flew back.”
Jeff described, “Her second surgery went a lot better than the first one. She was in and out of the hospital in less than a week... She’ll have a third surgery when she’s 3. It’s not a long-term solution. They call it a long-term temporary fix. They’ve only been doing this surgery [successfully] for about 35 years so that’s the sample size they have. They know with this heart she’ll make it about 40 years, and after that she’ll probably need a transplant.”
THEIR THIRD PREGNANCY
Jeff and Cortney are currently expecting their third daughter. Explaining their decision to have another child, Cortney said, “We both were scared, and I decided at one point if we were going to have more kids, or not have more kids, I just wanted to be at peace with either decision. I worked really hard at being okay with not having more children and then also being okay if we did. I didn’t want to make a decision out of fear, either fear of not having another child or fear of having another heart defect.”
Jeff also explained how their decision was based partly on Zola’s needs. “We also had to factor in the timing of the third kid because [Zola] is going to have a surgery when she’s 3. We didn’t want to have a newborn because being in the hospital was not an option or being super pregnant. We would either have to have one soon or wait until after.”
THE FUTURE FOR THEIR FAMILY
Jeff added, “We have a passion now for entrepreneurship and being able to work for ourselves.
“I’ve started two businesses this year that are growing and doing well. The goal is to be able to work from home and have our own businesses and be able to travel and show our kids the world. That’s our long-term goal.”
Cortney explained, “I love health, which is why I went into exercise science. But, because of Zola, I’ve also been really passionate about sharing her story and sharing that… whatever is going to happen in life is going to happen regardless, so our reaction to it matters more than anything. We think circumstances determine our happiness, when circumstances are going to be circumstances. How we react to them is what bases our happiness.
“That experience changed my perspective on life a lot, and I realized I have more power to be happy than I thought. If I can be pretty positive and happy through the worst experiences of my life, then I don’t have any excuses for when I have a bad day, or when I’m sitting in traffic. So, I would really love to be a motivational speaker and help other people realize that.
“Having Zola made us realize how not just her life is precious, but nobody is promised a certain amount of time on earth, so we were like, ‘We don’t need to waste time saving our trips for retirement, or for when our kids are older and can remember,’ and I was like, ‘I want to see the world now because what if I die next week.’ We try to prioritize those things because experiences matter and life is precious, so we want to take advantage of it.”
Writer: Haeley van der Werf