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Audrey Hope Gillespie may have been born with a rare disease that left her with half a heart, but you’d never know from her sweet, playful nature and her brilliant smile.
And as if to make up for that little heart, the hearts of her family are singing with joy after musicians both local and national have volunteered to play a concert this weekend to help pay her medical expenses.
The happy 10-month-old’s cheerful demeanor never hints at the struggles she has been through in her brief time on earth.
It seems that Audrey has been in the hospital more than she’s been home since her birth in March 2012.
Born with a heart problem called hypoplastic left heart syndrome, the left side of Audrey’s heart didn’t develop. She has had two open heart surgeries and just this month received a heart transplant that has given her a second chance at life.
Audrey is the daughter of Mandy and Phillip Gillespie of Galax. Her grandparents are Debbie and Doug Robinson and Vicky and Gary Gillespie. She is the great-granddaughter of Mary Ann and Donald Taylor; and Virgie Quesenberry of Floyd and the late Dr. and Mrs. E.H. Robinson of Galax.
Debbie Robinson has long worked with bluegrass, old-time and country artists through concert and event planning, radio stations, the Rex Theater, tourism promotion for Galax and her time as director of the Blue Ridge Music Center, so her family was close to the musical community.
She says she was moved by the generosity they showed when her granddaughter needed help.
“We were first approached by the musicians a few months ago, when they heard Audrey was at Duke [University Medical Center],” Robinson said. “They offered to help. They said, ‘If you need us, we’re here.’”
The event is being organized locally by volunteers Louise Moore and Johnny Dixon.
Local legends like Wayne Henderson and national acts like John Berry have volunteered to perform Feb. 3 at a benefit hosted by Galax First Baptist Church. Berry also offered to perform a full-length benefit concert that morning at the church.
“We are grateful for the outpouring of support and prayers from our community and family, and we thank God each day for his blessings and for the power of prayer,” Mandy Gillespie said.
Robinson said Berry has been close to her family for years and welcomed a chance to come back to the city. “Galax is near and dear to his heart. He’s been performing his Christmas concert here [at the Rex Theater] for years.”
Audrey’s struggle began months before she was born, when in November 2011 an ultrasound indicated the baby’s heart was underdeveloped on the left side. This typically goes undetected and is only discovered after birth, Robinson said. “It was a miracle that the technician detected it. It’s very rare.”
The family began consulting with Duke University immediately. In March 2012, the family temporarily moved from Galax to Durham, N.C., so Mandy and the baby could receive medical care as a team of cardiologists began preparing for the birth.
Audrey Hope Gillespie was born March 29, 2012 — right between her brothers’ birthdays on the 27th and 30th.
At only six days old, Audrey underwent her first open heart surgery. She spent 50 days in the hospital, and was released in May 2012 on her dad’s birthday.
She was readmitted a few days later.
The family stayed in Durham and both grandmothers began taking care of Audrey’s older brothers, Camden and Palen.
At four months old, Audrey had a second open-heart surgery. This surgery was supposed to allow her to return home with her family, with a third surgery planned when she was two years old.
For a month, the family settled in back home in Galax and returned to a sense of normalcy, Mandy wrote in a timeline of Audrey’s medical issues. “Within a few weeks, Audrey began showing her parents signs that something wasn’t right.”
On Sept. 30, 2012, Audrey was unexpectedly admitted to the cardiac ICU at Duke, and 18 days later she was placed on a heart transplant list.
Robinson said her daughter remained calm, patient and faithful despite the setback. “Mandy and Phillip have been so strong. They have inspired us all.”
After 80 days of waiting, hoping and praying, the Gillespies received a call on Jan. 6 at 1 a.m. that a family had generously chosen to donate their child’s heart.
By 5 a.m., Audrey was in a Duke operating room being prepped for surgery.
“We have been earnestly praying for a new heart, but in the same prayer we ask for comfort to the family that so selflessly chose to donate the gift of life,” Mandy said. “No amount of gratitude can be expressed to the donor family.”
The surgery, which lasted until that afternoon, was a success.
Today, Robinson reports that Audrey is doing well. She said the family would love to one day thank the donor family personally, if possible. For now, they remain anonymous.
Mandy thanked the medical team that has been with Audrey since before her birth. “Words alone cannot express our gratitude to the physicians, nurses and staff of the Pediatric Cardiology Department at Duke University Hospital. These brilliant, caring people were remarkable in their care for Audrey and quickly became family to us.”
Even at 10 months, Robinson said her granddaughter is a fighter and an inspiration. “Although Audrey has been through more than most of us will endure in a lifetime, her strength and courage is unwavering and her sweet, playful nature incredibly contagions.
“Her smile lights up a room and she has brought so much joy to those who have come to know her.”
Audrey Gillespie Benefit
The benefit for Audrey Hope Gillespie will be held Feb. 3 from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. at the fellowship hall of Galax First Baptist Church, 1024 E. Stuart Drive. Featured musicians will include John Berry, The Church Sisters, Wayne Henderson & Friends, Jeff Little Trio, Snyder Family Band and Mountain Park Oldtime Band. A soup and sandwich lunch, with desserts and drinks, will be served and is available for carryout. Cost for food or admission to she show is a donation to help with Gillespie’s medical expenses. Volunteers also are needed. To help, call Louise Moore at 237-8978. “We want to thank all of the musicians who are so generously donating talent and time for the benefit,” said Debbie Robinson, Audrey’s grandmother. “We’ve had numerous businesses and individuals who have also offered support. The family is indeed blessed to live in such a wonderful community.”
John Berry Benefit Concert
John Berry plans to perform a full-length concert on Feb. 3 during the 11 a.m. service at Galax First Baptist Church, in the sanctuary. Pastor Sam Bartlett said he will turn over the service to Berry for music and ministering for the full hour. The community is invited and admission is free. A love offering will be accepted at the end of the service.