By Shelby Williamson, senior communication specialist in the Office of Marketing and Communication
It has been almost two years since Dr. Callie Chiroff, clinical assistant professor of nursing, lost her infant son Theo to complications from a congenital heart defect.
A lot has happened since that day in March 2018, but one of the things forever in Chiroff’s mind — and what encouraged her to help others — is the way someone once described her new reality as a mother in the wake of her son’s passing.
“I remember them telling me that I am in this place where I have so much love for this child, but nowhere to put that love because he is no longer here,” Chiroff says. “I had to find somewhere to put that love. And I did.”
Chiroff has since created a nonprofit organization to advocate for others afflicted with congenital heart disease, and their families.
A sad end leads to a bright new beginning
Chiroff never got to bring her son home from the hospital. Theo pulled through a premature birth and subsequent emergency heart surgery to treat his Total Anomalous Pulmonary Venous Return (TAPVR) — a rare congenital heart condition in which the four pulmonary veins do not connect normally to the left atrium, preventing oxygen-rich blood from pumping through the body.
The obstacles kept coming, though.
A few more procedures led to other devastating setbacks and eventually Chiroff had to make the tough decision to take Theo off life support.
“In those moments, it’s a very helpless feeling,” Chiroff says. “And the loneliness that followed was profound.”
They’re feelings Chrioff says she wishes no other parent will ever have to endure, and because of that she knew she couldn’t just move on.
“I needed to do something in Theo’s name to bring awareness to these conditions with which so many struggle,” she says. “Because it happens more than you’d think — one out of every 100 babies are born with a heart defect, and nearly 25% of those babies require open heart surgery.”
In June 2019, Chiroff, with the support of family and friends, organized the first annual Heart and Sole 5K run benefitting the Pediatric Congenital Heart Association. The event raised nearly $100,000.
The success gave Chiroff a new sense of hope, which flourished into the creation of nonprofit Project Bubaloo — a named inspired by Chiroff’s nickname for Theo. Project Bubaloo’s mission is to raise awareness and advance the quality of care for those fighting congenital heart disease.
Chiroff says the organization is a way for her grief to become her voice as well as a voice for others.
Wanting to eventually elevate Project Bubaloo’s mission to a national level, Chiroff has begun traveling across the state interviewing other families experiencing CHD.
“I learned as a ‘heart mom’ that we in the ‘heart community’ talk a whole lot to each other about our stories, but not to anyone else,” Chiroff says. “That needs to change. We all need to come together and make those connections to really show the importance and the impact of all of this.”
The organization is doing just that tomorrow, Friday, Feb. 21, by hosting its first-ever Hops for Hearts fundraiser. The sold-out event, which will take place from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. at the Mitchell Park Domes, 524 S. Layton Blvd., will feature appetizers from Zilli Hospitality Group and beer from local breweries.
“I’ll never know what life could have been with Theo here. To me, he will always be a six-month-old baby,” Chiroff says. “But it’s that ‘what if’ that keeps me going. He meant everything to me and to know his story means something to others means so much.”
Do you know a faculty or staff member who gives their time and talent to service outside the university community? We want to hear about it. Share your story idea with Marquette Today by emailing Abby Cole in the Office of Marketing and Communication.