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Oct 14, 2019 4:16 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Jack Pazera Battles Through Heart, Knee Surgeries To Continue To Play The Sport He Loves Most, Football

The Pazera Family, from top left, Kerri, Brianna Ottati, Owen, and from bottom left, Nick, Peter and Jack.
Oct 14, 2019 4:55 PM

When 11-year-old Jack Pazera was recovering from an eight-hour open heart surgery at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City last April, he and his family had questions, big and small. Among them was how long it would take for him to get back to what he loves doing — namely, playing football, basketball and lacrosse, and riding his dirt bike. Not exactly slow-paced activities.

His cardiologist, Dr. Peter Morelli of Stony Brook Pediatric Cardiology, had the kind of advice that Jack and the Pazera family were all relieved to hear.

“He said, ‘You’ve got to live your life and not be afraid,’” Kerri Pazera recounted earlier this month while sitting at the dining room table of their Southampton home, alongside her husband, Peter Pazera, and Jack, the youngest of their four children.

Jack Pazera acted quickly on that advice.

He was well enough to come home after just six days in the hospital instead of the more customary 10 to 14 days, according to his parents, and he proudly touted the fact that he was on a tractor, mowing the lawn, just three days after returning home from the hospital.

In September, less than five months after the surgery, Jack, a sixth-grader in the Southampton Intermediate School, was back on the field playing the sport he loves most — football — as a right tackle for the 11-and-12-year-old Southampton PAL team.

Ms. Pazera said that the response to her son’s quick recovery has followed a similar pattern.

“Everyone would say, ‘How’s Jack?’” she said. “And I’d say, ‘He’s playing football,’ and they’d be like, ‘Oh, my God.’”

The speedy recovery was a welcome relief, especially because the lead up to the surgery was particularly stressful.

The Pazera family knew that a big surgery was likely in the cards for Jack from the time he was a newborn. He underwent an emergency heart procedure when he was just 12 days old.

Ms. Pazera, who is a nurse, said she remembered taking him to the doctor when he was less than two weeks old because he was lethargic and had cold feet, among other symptoms. Before long, it was determined he had Shone’s complex, a rare congenital heart disease that affects the left side of the heart, which left him with four defects on the left side.

Jack was whisked off to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where they did surgery to help repair some of the defects. After years of tests and monitoring, the family was told in November 2018 that Jack would need eight-hour surgery to replace a large segment of his aorta with a gortex piece, and address other issues, including patching a ventricular septal defect and addressing a leaky mitral valve and a bicuspid valve that is supposed to be a tricuspid valve but was fused into two. Those issues will likely require more surgery down the road.

For now, Jack is the poster child for an active, sports-obsessed adolescent boy. He has followed in the footsteps of his father, who played football at Hampton Bays High School and now helps coach with the youth team. He is soft-spoken, but lights up when talking about his team and his other hobbies outside of sports, including dirt biking. When asked what he loves about football, his reply is simple, and to the point: “I like hitting. And tackling,” he says, giggling as his Dad laughs and his Mom rolls her eyes through a smile.

Jack is candid when speaking about the lead up to the surgery and the anxiety that descended upon him during that time. He would ride his dirt bike to try to ease his mind, but his parents admitted it took a toll on him and the family, including his older sister, Brianna Otatti, 28, and brothers Nick, 19, and Owen, 17.

“He actually wrote letters to all of us, in case he died,” Ms. Pazera said, as Jack nodded silently. “He told us not to read them until after the surgery.”

He was so anxious, in fact, that he did not even think about what the surgery would mean for his future as an athlete.

“I wasn’t nervous about that,” Jack said, before adding, in a softer voice, “I was nervous about staying alive.”

Mr. Pazera said that Jack had undergone knee surgery last summer for an injury he sustained riding his dirt bike, and said that difficulty recovering from that surgery likely added to his son’s anxiety about the heart procedure. They say that the knee is giving him more problems these days than his heart.

The anxiety took its toll on Mr. and Ms. Pazera as well. Mr. Pazera said it was sobering to hear the doctors explain to him and his wife everything that could go wrong during the surgery, and the plans they had in place to address any of those issues if they arose.

“When they told us the things that could go wrong, I was like, oh my God,” said Mr. Pazera, adding that they did not disclose that information to Jack before the surgery. “They were like, ‘OK, we’re going to stop his heart and put him on a machine, and if it doesn’t start again, I could give him a pacemaker. And if I have to cut this nerve, I can repair it later so he can get his voice back.’ And there was more.”

Mr. and Ms. Pazera said the support from friends and the Southampton school community was amazing, adding that his friends sent him videos and cards. He now routinely gets requests to see or touch his scars — he’s a member of the “zipper club,” his mother joked.

Ms. Pazera seems resigned to the fact that his heart condition will never slow Jack down, but she admits it hasn’t been easy watching him go through multiple heart surgeries, not to mention the knee surgery.

“He just does what he wants, and that’s it,” she said, sighing, but smiling. “He likes the adrenaline things, obviously. Sometimes I’m like, ugh, this is why I have to color my hair.”

Jack says he has no plans of giving up any sports anytime soon, hoping to play all three through high school, with the dream of playing football in college.

Despite his determination, Jack’s parents say he does have days when his spirits are low, when he’s frustrated by the fact that he’s already endured two heart surgeries with more likely on the horizon, and a knee surgery.

He received word recently that he might need a procedure done on his eye as well.

But his father said that Jack always finds a way to lift his spirits, simply by never taking his foot off the gas when it comes to sports and other activities.

Ms. Pazera added that Jack had a close-knit group of friends with the same interests as him, and those friendships help boost his spirits as well.

And they said that staying on the pediatric cardiology wing at Columbia was an experience that left a strong impression they won’t soon forget.

“When Jack would do laps in the hallway, we’d realize that there are children actually living at Columbia waiting for a heart,” Mr. Pazera said. “And I was like, ‘Jack, they fixed yours.’ Your perspective changes when you realize that those kids aren’t going to school. They’re waiting for someone to save their life.”

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