Sometimes, the game of football seems like life or death. But last year, the Tillman family learned about the pain and heartbreak of a real life-and-death struggle.
During training camp, Bears cornerback Charles Tillman was called off the field by coach Lovie Smith.
It was not good news.
Tillman's three-month-old daughter, Tiana Rene, was being rushed to the hospital. Her heart was failing.
She was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, which enlarged her heart and kept it from beating properly. To the Tillmans, it was as if it happened overnight.
Hours led to days, which turned into weeks at her bedside at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago. She needed a heart transplant.
Rumors swirled as to why Charles was missing from camp. Was he being traded? Was he busted for drugs?
Then, as the Tillmans waited for a donor, the FDA did them a huge favor. They approved little Tiana as the first person in Illinois to receive a Berlin heart.
A Berlin heart is a small pump run by a laptop computer. It works by helping the right ventricle of the heart pump blood to the lungs, and the left ventricle to pump blood to the body.
The device is intended to be a bridge until recovery or, in this case, a transplant can be done.
“By her being on that Berlin Heart, it saved her life,” Tillman said. “It bought us more time.”
Finally, the news they had been waiting to hear arrived. A donor had been found.
Yet, despite this good fortune, it seemed as if fate was once again against the Tillmans.
The weather suddenly changed, and the private plane carrying the heart diverted. They only had a total of six hours to get the heart from its source to the hospital where little Tiana lay waiting.
But a police escort managed to get the heart to Children's with about two hours to spare.
The transplant was a success!
Little Tiana celebrated her first birthday last week. The Tillmans are understandably grateful for the heart, though they do not know from where it came from, whether it had been a boy or a girl.
No matter, their little girl was healthy once again. Her life was saved.
Still, tempering the Tillman's joy and exuberance was one key fact.
“I think probably the toughest thing that I had to battle with, and I still battle with it now, is that I knew in order for my daughter to live, another kid had to die,” Tillman said.
Now, they are expecting their first son.
All of this serves as an important reminder on two fronts.
First, with 4,700 Illinois residents and nearly 100,000 people on the national transplant waiting list, the need for registrations is at an all time high. Be sure to hop over to http://www.ShareYourLife.org and find out how to register in your state.
It will only take a moment of your day, but may someday save the life of someone like Tiana.
Second, it serves as a stark reminder as to what is really important and how sports pales in comparison with something like this. We love our Bears in Chicago, but we love our children much more.
After all, it's just a game. The game of life, come to think of it.