Natalie's Everyday Heroes: Sam Slager raises awareness for heart disease, Camp Odayin
ELKHORN, Wis. (CBS 58) -- In Wisconsin, Camp Odayin in Elkhorn is a special place for kids with heart disease.
Sam Slager has been going there for years. At first, it was something he and his family did together, but eventually, Slager found a community of other kids who know what he's going through.
Slager, 15, is your typical teen. He loves playing volleyball, and he plays saxophone in the band at Brookfield Central High School.
And like most 15-year-olds, he can also be found playing on his phone, but there's something that you don't see when you look at him.
"I have Tetralogy of Fallot with Pulmonary Atresia," Slager said. "I had my first surgery when I was three months old."
It's a condition that was diagnosed just after he was born.
It was a shock to mom, Erika Slager, and dad, Kevin Slager. Neither of them had ever heard of it before.
"About 12 hours after he was born, he started turning a little blue," Erika Slager recalled.
The parents relived those moments, sitting at their dining room table.
"I'll never forget the moment walking into the NICU when the doctor was like, 'Is this the father?' And because it was our first kid, that word alone shook me," Kevin Slager said.
Sam's pulmonary artery didn't form correctly, and he's had more than one open heart surgery, most recently in the summer of 2020.
"I will have to get either a procedure or surgery done every 5-10 years," he explained.
Fortunately, he has a group of friends around him who understand, and they helped him through that scary time.
"So there was a lot of texting and some phone calls leading up to, and while he was there and back home. So that was huge for him," his mom said.
It's a lifelong condition that in some ways, impacts the whole family.
"It is something that he has to live with for his life, but we're a heart family, you know, we're not just parents of a heart kid," Kevin said.
As a family, they discovered Camp Odayin. It's a camp for children with heart disease.
They all decided to go, including brother Chase, and sister Maddie, to meet other families with heart kids.
"From that weekend on, we were like, this is awesome. It was the most fun. It was one of our best weekends as a family," Erika said.
Soon, Sam went off to camp by himself and made friends who understand his health struggles.
"It's definitely different than the friends you meet at school. You actually share a really special bond with these kids that understand pretty much everything you've gone through," Sam said.
At first, his parents were nervous to let him go.
"When we went to pick him up, he said 'that was the best week of my life,'" Erika said with a smile.
Now, Sam is raising awareness about the camp.
"We talk about it, too, about ways we can give back to Camp Odayin, and that's just one way he can help," Kevin said.
And his experiences have inspired him to want to be a camp counselor, too.
"Help the kids who are younger than him understand that life's okay, even with a heart disease," Erika said.
He's a super kid, often seen wearing a Superman shirt, with an important message for other kids on how to treat someone with a medical condition.
"Accept them for who they are and just treat them like one of your other friends who would never have a medical condition," Sam said.
Sam will be speaking at the Flannels and Friends fundraiser on Dec. 2 to support Camp Odayin.
"Just a place where I really don't have to worry about what people think about me," he explained.
"He's a great person to represent Camp Odayin and what it means to be a heart kid," his dad added.
The Flannels and Friends fundraiser will be emceed by Chief Meteorologist Drew Burgoyne.
For more information go to Flannels & Friends | Camp Odayin.
If you'd like to nominate an Everyday Hero, send Natalie a message at [email protected].