Breaking Boards and Bestowing Balloons
Benjamin Hoyle doesn’t let his heart slow him down
“My dad always told me, ‘your heart doesn’t define you,’” the 21-year-old said. “Just because it’s a little messed up, doesn’t mean you can’t have fun.”
You’d never know Ben—a second-degree black belt in taekwondo who can break wooden boards and concrete with his hands and feet—was born with a rare congenital heart defect called transposition of the great arteries. It’s a condition in which the pulmonary artery and aorta are reversed, changing the way blood flows through the heart and is oxygenated by the lungs. Babies born with the defect suffer a dangerous lack of oxygen that can cause serious complications or even death.
Ben was born three weeks early in Abilene, Texas, where his family calls home. His mom remembers the nurses took him immediately after birth to run tests but assured her not to worry.
“The nurse said, ‘I’ll tell you when to worry,’” said Ben’s mom, Joy Hoyle. “Then she came back and said they were going to check his lungs, but still not to worry. Then, she came back again and said they are going to check his heart and said, ‘Now it’s time to worry.’”
That’s when Ben was transferred by jet to Cook Children’s Medical Center where Joy and her husband, Ed, learned of their son’s diagnosis. At just three days old, Ben underwent open-heart surgery to repair the defect. Since then he’s needed two more surgeries to keep his blood pumping through his heart properly. The most recent was in June 2020 for a pulmonary valve replacement.
“They used a pig valve, so he likes to say he’s 1% bacon,” Joy said with a chuckle.
Ben is full of that type of lighthearted cheer, plus a heap of positivity, confidence and perseverance. They are qualities he says he learned in martial arts.
Ben began training in taekwondo when he was 9 years old. His body was frail then but, as he continued to train, he grew stronger in his health, physical abilities and positive mindset. Now he’s passing all he has learned on to others as an instructor at Team Chip Martial Arts in San Angelo, Texas, where he is also studying graphic design at Angelo State University. Many of his students are shocked to learn their instructor with ninja-like abilities has a serious heart condition.
“That’s how I want it to be,” Ben said. “You shouldn’t be able to tell that I have some sort of underlying condition.”
He’s far from embarrassed about his heart defect. In fact, Ben enjoys sharing his story and all that he’s learned from his experiences, but he wants others to know their differences don’t define them.
“Over a quarter of our martial arts students company-wide have some form of something that makes them different,” Ben said. “We have kids on the spectrum or with disabilities, and adults with medical issues. I’ve had students say, ‘Mr. Ben, I don’t know if I can do this,’ and I’m like, ‘well, buddy, if I can do it and I’ve got a heart condition, you can too.’ And, boom, they get it done.”
A Seamless Transition
Every surgery Ben’s had has been performed at Cook Children’s. Now as a young adult, he’s a part of a unique group of patients who continue to receive care at the medical center even into adulthood through the Adult Congenital Heart Disease (ACHD) program.
Thanks to advances in pediatric cardiology and surgery, many children born with heart defects, also called congenital heart disease, are surviving, thriving and growing up to live full adult lives. But their condition still requires the ongoing care of physicians specialized in treating congenital heart disease. The increasing need for continued care for patients like Ben led Cook Children’s to develop an open its ACHD program in February 2014. The program provides adult patients with congenital heart disease with comprehensive care and management of their disease well into their adult years. Ben is no exception as he’ll likely need more surgery in the years to come.
“The Adult Congenital Heart Disease program at Cook Children’s is now recognized as a medical home for hundreds of adults with congenital heart disease in the metroplex and surrounding area, with specialists dedicated to the care of congenital heart disease patients regardless of age,” said Scott M. Pilgrim, M.D., medical director of the ACHD program. “I am proud of patients like Ben who have developed the autonomy to make informed decisions about their heart health as they transition into adult medical care. It is so rewarding to see the lightbulb go on when the patient understands their heart anatomy and the need for ongoing care.”
Ben transitioned to the ACHD program about two years ago.
“The adult program has been amazing in helping me understand my condition and anatomy,” he said. “It’s a different world now because I’m an adult and need to understand what’s going on in my body. It’s no longer me sitting in an office not knowing what’s going on and all the adults talking. Now I am the adult in the room talking to somebody that knows way more than I do and learning information and understanding the next steps for myself.”
You wouldn’t expect to see a 21-year-old black belt carrying a balloon to every appointment at Cook Children’s, but it’s a tradition the Hoyle family adopted after Ben’s second heart surgery at 14 months old.
“When Benjamin was in the ICU recovering, there was a little boy who was about 5 or 6 in the bed next to Benjamin,” Joy explained. “We all got moved to another patient floor and, one day, I got a knock on the door and it was this little boy with his mom. He said he was getting to go home and he wanted to give his balloons to the little heart baby who was in the bed next to him.”
That small gift made a huge impression on the Hoyle family. Now Ben does the same for a child each time he visits the medical center. Before he leaves, he stops by the cardiac care unit and asks the nurses to give his balloon to a child there.
“I may not be able to change a child’s life by giving them a balloon, but if I can put a smile on their face then it’s 100% worth it,” he said. “I know what it’s like to be sitting in that room not sure what’s about to happen. So if I can give some sort of joy to that kid or those parents, it’s all worth it.”
To other kids like him Ben says to never let your disability get in the way of being a kid.
“Go have fun,” he said. “Your heart doesn’t define you. Go do baseball. Go play sports. Go do martial arts. Go do it.”