12-year-old receives new heart

12-year-old receives new heart


Twelve-year-old Matthew O’Neal underwent a life-changing experience last week when he received a long-awaited heart transplant at the University of Alabama Birmingham Hospital.

After 208 days in the hospital, the call came last Sunday night, and on Tuesday, April 30, Matthew received his new heart.

“I knew when the timing was right, the Lord would provide,” said his mother, Stacey O’Neal. “This is something that’s tested our patience and our faith.”

Matthew was born with a rare condition called hypoplastic left heart syndrome, meaning he was born with only half a heart.

At just six days old, he had his first open-heart surgery, the Norwood procedure, at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, and over the years, he underwent multiple heart surgeries, including the Glenn and Fontan procedures.

Despite these challenges, Matthew showed incredible resilience, especially in early 2019 when he developed a liver condition known as protein-losing enteropathy.

His journey towards a transplant began with the listing process in December 2021, which eventually led them to the UAB transplant program.

In June 2022, they consulted with a team of 19 specialists from various medical fields, and on August 17, 2022, he was officially listed as a 1B candidate and was able to await a donor match outside the hospital setting.

During spring break in March 2023, Matthew contracted the Norovirus, and although he initially responded well to antibiotics and fluids, the virus resurfaced in October of the same year.

Since October 6, 2023, Matthew has been at UAB, waiting for a new heart that finally arrived last week.

The surgery lasted about 10 hours, and although Matthew will need to take rejection medication for the rest of his life, he’s progressing well and isn't holding back.

His new heart is now functioning independently, his oxygen levels are strong, and he's close to being able to reduce his oxygen support.

“We are blessed,” his mother said. “This is a new life for him. It’s just going to take some time for the heart to get used to who it’s pumping for now.”

His new heart is slightly larger than the surgeons originally planned to implant, but it fits perfectly, functions strongly, and looks great, she said.  

“To know Matthew and to be around him, the heart just fits because he has a huge heart. It matches his personality,” she exclaimed.

The road to recovery will likely keep the Neshoba County family in Birmingham for at least six more weeks before they can finally return home.

His mother said she is grateful for the supportive staff at UAB, who have treated them like family since day one. 

They've also met many families and made friends at the hospital along the way and have been deeply moved by the outpouring of love and support from the community.

“The prayers are what’s been getting us through,” his mother said. “Everybody has been really supportive, and we’ve had several churches reach out and been on several prayer lists.”

Since his heart transplant, Matthew’s energy has been low, but he has managed to get up and walk, and overall, he's ahead of schedule with his medications.

During his seven-month stay at UAB, Matthew has even explored his passion for cooking by making pickles, pickled okra, and asparagus. 

He’s been working on a cookbook and a cooking show both called "Half A Heart For Cooking” and plans to start posting his show on YouTube once he copyrights the name.

His positive outlook on life shines through inspiring acts of kindness, like treating hospital staff and patients to Taco Mama on his 200th day at the hospital.

Now, with a new heart, Matthew is looking forward to a transformed life. He dreams of becoming a cardiologist and leading his own team someday.

Matthew is also involved with Make-A-Wish Mississippi and is looking forward to riding the golf cart again at the next Wish Upon A Par event at the Philadelphia Country Club.

Despite the long road ahead, his family is grateful for the support of the community and the power of faith that has carried them through. 

His mother's advice to families going through similar challenges is to keep the faith.

“God gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers,” she said. “You just got to keep pushing forward and be your kid’s advocate.”

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