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Mitchell family begins charity to raise money for Congenital Heart Defects

Merri Royce, back left, holds 1-year-old Jacob Sandmeier while posing for a photo with her kids, from left, Raeana Eggert, 12, Leo Eggert, 10, Janeli Eggert, 6, and dad Lance Sandmeier. Each family member is wearing a Helping Heart Heroes fundraiser T-shirt in honor of Jacob, who has a Congenital Heart Defect. The family's charity, called Helping Heart Heroes will be hosting a fundraising event on Saturday at the Village Bowl in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)

The day her infant son was flown to a hospital in Omaha for a Congenital Heart Defect, is a day Merri Royce will never forget.

It was nearly two years ago Royce gave birth to her son, Jacob Sandmeier, in Mitchell. That same day they discovered he was born with a Congenital Heart Defect (CHD), and he was flown to a Sioux Falls hospital. But his condition worsened and he was then flown to Omaha.

During the flight to Omaha, while Royce and Jacob's father Lance Sandmeier were driving to Omaha, they found out Jacob's intestines ruptured because not enough blood was pumping from his heart.

Doctors told Royce he wasn't going to make it.

"It was a horrible, long drive," Royce said. "It was one of the most horrible, traumatic experiences I feel anybody can go through."

After nearly a month in the hospital, and an open heart surgery, Jacob's condition improved. He eventually was sent home to Mitchell.

But, this past summer, the family braced themselves for bad news once again. Jacob was scheduled to undergo an echocardiogram — also called an echo — when the cardiologist told Royce he needed a second open heart surgery.

"We starting getting really scared and freaked out and we just decided to do something more — something to help," Royce said.

And Helping Heart Heroes was founded.

During the waiting period that determined if Jacob needed to have an additional open heart surgery, the family decided to focus on something positive to help through the trying time. So, they formed the charity they now call Helping Heart Heroes.

That was six months ago, and now the family is preparing for the first-ever fundraiser this Saturday at The Village Bowl in Mitchell. The money raised will be given to the Pediatric Congenital Heart Association for research.

Feb. 7 through Feb. 14 has been deemed Congenital Heart Disease Awareness Week 2018, and the main reason Royce and her family chose this weekend to host the fundraiser.

One out of every 100 babies are born with CHD, making it the most common birth defect, according to the heart association. There is also no cure.

"It just fueled the fire for us to raise awareness," Royce said.

Trying to make 'a little bit of a difference'

Ever since Royce and her family began Helping Heart Heroes, the amount of people who have also been impacted by CHD in the Mitchell area have reached out.

And the entire family is shocked by the numbers.

"It's crazy how many people start telling me their CHD stories," Royce said. "It's really common. It's really scary."

But what's been even more surprising is the amount of support Royce has received. Several area businesses have agreed to sponsor, donate and help in several ways for the upcoming fundraiser.

And this has Royce hopeful for her son's, and the thousands of other children's, future with CHD.

"Before I had him, if I would've been asked what CHD is, I would have had no idea whatsoever," Royce said, again stating the one in 100 figure. "With awareness, brings funding, which brings research and it's good to put it out there."

Jacob's siblings include 12-year-old Raeana Eggert, 10-year-old Leo Eggert and 6-year-old Janelie Eggert. And each one of them also recall the day Jacob was born, and the health issues he's faced.

"It was probably the scariest time for any of us in our whole lives," Royce said. "We've never experienced anything this traumatic."

Jacob still has doctor appointments every three months, and will need to undergo a few more open heart surgeries in the future, Royce said. But she and the family are prepared, and eager to spread the word about CHD as much as possible.

"We're just trying to make a little bit of a difference," Royce said. "It's heartbreaking seeing how many children are out there fighting."

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