"It was a lot of sleepless nights, just waiting for the surgery that would save his life.”
The Dart family's story is part of Love Wisconsin's storytelling partnership with American Family Children's Hospital.
Photos by Megan Monday (unless otherwise noted)
The Dart family | Luxemburg, WI
Tiffany: I grew up in a small town about 20 minutes outside of Green Bay called Luxemburg. We lived in a small trailer across the road from a farm. My mom was a bartender, so she worked nights, and my dad worked out of town a lot. We had a lot of babysitters because my parents weren’t around much. I had to grow up kind of on my own, which shaped me into a strong, independent person, but looking back, my childhood wasn’t a lot of fun.
My parents had to focus on work to pay the mortgage and make sure we had food on the table. So, I had to help raise my younger brother. I remember doing a lot of homework with him. He struggled with his reading, but it wasn’t until the fourth grade that we discovered he had reading issues. There wasn’t a lot of support at school, so he just kind of slipped through the cracks. I think that’s what really sparked my interest in becoming a teacher—it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do ever since I was a kid.
I met my husband, Justin, in middle school. We hung out with the same group of people. Our backgrounds were pretty much the same, except he was from Algoma. In high school, it turned out that our lockers were right next to each other because—don’t get freaked out—our last names were the same, but we’re not related! We had been friends for a long time and finally started dating sophomore year. It’s been the two of us ever since.
I worked a lot throughout high school—lots of babysitting and other jobs. I saved all of my money so that I could go to college to become a teacher. Because I was the first person in my family to go to college, my parents didn’t quite understand how college worked, or what it took to go down that path. I had to be independent and take it upon myself to figure everything out. I made sure I had the right classes and grades in high school, learned how to apply for scholarships and saved all my money.
After high school graduation, Justin went to a tech school in Green Bay and I went to UW-Green Bay for education. In college, the whole time I was there I got as much experience working with kids as I could. I worked at a daycare, at a summer camp, and I worked with the Phuture Phoenix program at UW-Green Bay where I mentored lower-income students so that they had a chance to go to college.
Justin, meanwhile, was still trying to find his niche. He worked in shipyards for a while in Sturgeon Bay, did a year in an automotive program at the tech school, worked for his uncle’s mechanic shop, but just couldn’t find something he was happy with until he landed an apprenticeship with a mechanical contracting company. He works in the sheet metal department and he’s been there ever since.
I didn’t want us to get married until after I finished college, so we got married one month after my college graduation. Of course, I didn’t even have to change my last name!
We started talking about having a family and how we wanted to raise our kids. It’s kind of harsh to say this, but I told Justin that I didn’t want our kids grow up the way I did. I wanted childhood to be different for our kids. We agreed back then that when we had kids, we would give them all the opportunities that we possibly could.
Tiffany: I am a planner. I like to be very organized, so I had everything worked out. After we got married, we wanted to find a house and then start saving money for a baby because they are really expensive. We wanted to make sure we had everything in order so we could build our little family.
While I was still in college, I got a job teaching preschool at a small Lutheran school just outside of Luxemburg. As I was finishing up school they decided to start a new all-day four-year-old kindergarten program, and they said, "Tiffany, you would be perfect for this." I had always wanted to teach 4K, so I was really excited.
Around that time, I got pregnant with my first child. It was a pretty easy pregnancy, and we had Tarren in 2009. It was an emergency C-section—where they ended up nicking him just a bit above his right eyebrow with the scalpel—but thankfully everything went well and we had a beautiful little baby boy.
Life was on track for us. I decided to go back to school because I wasn’t technically certified to be teaching four-year-old kindergarten. I was certified for older kids. I remember the first Friday that I went to school in Green Bay. Tarren was only about six months old. I cried the entire way to school because I'm like, "I'm leaving my baby!" But I knew I had to do it. While I was in school there were rumblings at our local public school that they might start a 4K program. By the time I finished my two-year program, the opportunity was real. So I applied and landed my dream job: being a 4K teacher at Luxemburg Elementary! I was working back where I went to school as a child.
Two years after Tarren was born, we started trying for a second child. I took a pregnancy test, and it was positive. We were thrilled. I called the doctor. They wanted me to wait a little while before I came in to let the baby grow a bit.
A couple weeks later, I went to the bathroom at school and started bleeding. My principal was like, "I’m taking you in." Working in a small school like ours, everyone becomes really close. I was so glad she was there with me. At the doctor’s office, they took some blood and did some tests. They said that the pregnancy hormone wasn’t in my blood anymore. The baby was gone.
Justin: I was working at the time, and I knew she was going to the doctor. But when she called me and she was crying, I was like, ‘Oh no. She said she had a miscarriage.’ I knew I had to go home and be with her. I wouldn’t have been able to get through my shift. All I wanted to do was just be there.
Tiffany: That was very tough. It was hard for me to grasp why this was happening. I had worked so hard to stay healthy. It was like, "Why?" But when I looked to my faith, I knew God did this because something must be wrong with the baby, and God didn’t want it to have to go through all of that, so it was just easier to take the baby now.
Justin: She’s very spiritual, and that’s what I love about her. She always tries to look at the better side of everything.
Tiffany: When I miscarried, it was hard for us to talk about it with other people. Our parents knew it happened, but we didn’t really tell anyone else.
Miscarriages are just something that people don’t really talk about with other each other. After having mine, I found out that one of our relatives had a miscarriage also, twice, but nobody ever talked about it. I really feel like if women had that support system, it would make those difficult times easier. It would be so much more helpful if we didn't have that idea in our culture that we shouldn't talk about it.
But at the end of the day, while we were trying to manage our grief and feeling terrible inside, we had this little toddler to take care of, and we had to pull it together for him.
Tiffany: We spoke with the doctor a lot after my miscarriage, and she said we could try again. So we did, and we got pregnant.
We were very on-edge with the pregnancy. It was high-risk, so I had to go in more often to get checked. Fortunately, nothing came up that was a red flag. After the miscarriage, we decided that we didn’t need to know the sex of the baby—as long as the baby is healthy, as long as the baby gets here, we don’t care!
We thought it was a girl because my pregnancy was very different that it was with Tarren, but it was a healthy baby boy. We named him Isaac. Isaac completed our family. We call him our rainbow baby. He was our bright light after the rain. That’s how I always think of him.
He was born in January, and he was very colicky. He was a tough one—very fussy, almost a beastly child. I think it came from his difficult baby stage where we were trying to figure out his formula. It makes sense now looking back, because he now has some food allergies and sensitivities to food dyes in things.
Isaac is always very energetic. He's on the go, go, go, and has that energy, and just a happy spirit about him. In a lot of ways, Tarren is the balance of that—very mellow, thoughtful, loves to read, very quiet. Meanwhile, Isaac is running around and getting in trouble. He never wants to be left out, so he’ll often just do anything that Tarren’s doing.
One story that I’ll probably never forget is when he was at the park with his grandma, Justin’s mom, and all of a sudden he’s limping. He fell down a hill and could hardly walk on his leg and was crying. We decided to take him into the emergency room and he’s crying the whole way there. We get to the emergency room, and all of a sudden, he starts flirting and schmoozing with the nurses. Before we know it, he’s walking down the hallway holding her hand, as perfect as could be.
He ended up getting an X-ray and there was nothing wrong. It was like he just totally played us. That’s Isaac—total flirt.
Tiffany: Isaac has asthma, so we usually take him in every six months for check-ups for his inhaler. Tarren had his seven-year checkup that same day, and that went perfectly.
Then Dr. Rutger started checking Isaac, and he’s listening to his heart, and all of a sudden he looks at me and asks, "Have I or your previous doctor talked to you about a heart murmur?" I think someone mentioned it, but we didn’t really think it was a big deal. My mom was sitting me with me right there, she said she had one when she was little, and it wasn’t a big deal. Dr. Rutger was like, "You know, something doesn't sound quite right. It's probably nothing. But just to be sure, just to dot our i’s and cross our t’s, I want us to get an ultrasound of his heart." We're like, "Okay."
We went back a few days later for the ultrasound and everything was going great; Isaac was laying there nicely, and I was thinking that everything was perfect. But when the tech got to the very last part of the ultrasound and put the wand right up by his neck to kind of look down at his heart, her eyes got really big and she had to step out for a minute. I started kind of freaking out.
Dr. Van Bergen, a cardiologist from American Family Children’s Hospital, was in town at our clinic that day. He came in and introduced himself and took a look. Then some nurses came into the little room, and they're taking blood pressure on Isaac's legs. Finally, Justin got there, thank goodness. Everyone stepped out of the room for a moment and when they come back in, Dr. Van Bergen looks at Justin and I, and he goes, "We need to sit down and talk."
He started drawing a picture, showing us what’s wrong. He told us that Isaac has a coarctation of the aorta, where part of the aorta was pinched and blood was not getting to his organs below properly, and he had very high blood pressure in his left leg because the blood was not circulating the way it should be.
He said it wasn’t an urgent emergency, but we needed to get it fixed by the end of the year or he could end up in organ failure due to lack of bloodflow.
Then Dr. Rutger and the nurses came in and they’re reassuring us that everything will be okay, and Dr. Van Bergen is trying to explain to us how the surgery would work—we’d have to go down to Madison.
Justin: It was like getting punched in the stomach. You never think something like this would happen to you, especially to your four-year-old. It was a lot of sleepless nights. It took a couple of days to really sink in, followed by two months of just knowing and waiting…going in for more MRIs and meetings, just waiting for the surgery that would save his life.
Tiffany: My head was just spinning when we left the doctor that day. I had driven myself there—Justin met us at the hospital—and I cried the whole way home. It was one day that I’ll probably never forget.
Tiffany: We found out that Isaac would need heart surgery on a Thursday, and the next day Dr. Van Bergen gave us a call to start making plans. One thing I loved about working with him was that I was always talking to him personally on the phone. That really put me at ease that everything was going to be okay. I knew they knew what they were doing.
Isaac’s team of doctors came up with a plan for his surgery. Their plan was to cut out the pinch in his aorta, and then pull the two pieces together and sew it back up. To help the surgeons know where to cut, we went down in August to Madison to get Isaac a CAT scan.
In the American Family Children’s Hospital, they have big cans where you can drop your pop tabs to donate to the Ronald McDonald House, where they told us we could stay. Tarren really took an interest and started asking us a bunch of questions about it. We talked about how it’s a place for families to stay if their kids are at the hospital, and that they don’t make the families pay anything, unless they want to donate.
Tarren took it on as his project—a big project—to collect all the pop tabs he could to support his brother and support the people at the Ronald McDonald Home. He started thinking really hard about it.
On the way home he was like, "Mom, can I ask Grandma and our uncles and people to save their pop tabs, too?" I said sure, and then he started looking through my phone for everyone he knows to send out a text message about saving their tabs. He even had me take a picture of him holding a can that we sent around, too.
He kept getting tons of responses, and he was really excited. My mom started telling her coworkers and made a flier for their break room with a container next to it to collect pop tabs. We made some copies and I put one by our work soda machine, and Tarren put one by the soda machine in his school’s teachers lounge. The fire department, the school I used to work at, a motorcycle club, veterans' groups, a Lion’s club, different bars…so many groups chipped in to help Tarren collect tabs.
Isaac, not wanting to be left out, helped, too. It was interesting to hear him say, "Hi! I’m collecting tabs because I have to have heart surgery!" and people would look at him like, "Oh my God." He just goes around, like, "I have to have heart surgery. No big deal."
Before we knew it, it just completely snowballed. We had a garbage can full and we were literally shoveling the pop tabs out and putting them into gallon-size bags for easier hauling. He ended up with 150 gallon bags. I think it was four or five plastic totes full in the back of our van.
Tarren and a bunch of our family members went to drop them off at the Ronald McDonald House on Thanksgiving. They were so thankful, they wanted to send out thank-you cards to the different businesses in Luxemburg who had helped Tarren collect them.
Photo courtesy of the Dart family
Tiffany: We’re from a very small community, and to know that those people cared so much about us to take the time to collect all of their tabs and drop them off, that was just an amazing feeling. I was so proud of Tarren and so amazed that a second-grader could do this project for his brother. It just made my heart melt.
Tiffany: Leading up to the day of the surgery in late November, we’d basically turned Isaac into a hermit. We didn’t want him to get sick, because if he’s sick, he can’t have the surgery. Starting at the beginning of November, we did nothing. You could tell Isaac was getting stir-crazy.
The morning of his surgery, he wasn’t allowed to eat or drink anything—and this is the kid that normally needs to eat immediately when he wakes up. He wouldn’t let Justin or I eat, either. The surgery wasn’t until 11 am, so we were kind of nagging Isaac to let us get a coffee or something. He’s like, "Fine, you can have coffee, but no food."
He was so funny because we had to pack him his own suitcase and he had a special bear he was taking along, and he pulled that suitcase through the whole hospital. He didn’t want our help. He had to have a special robe and slippers, and he made sure that it was all in his suitcase. It was like an adventure for him, like we’re going on vacation.
It still amazes me that he had no clue what was about to happen. We tried talking to him about it a few times, that they were going to fix his heart and then that he would probably feel sick for a while after, but we didn’t want to scare him so we didn’t push it.
They took us up to this teeny-tiny room to get prepped for the surgery and they let him pick out some jammies and gave him a pillow case. We’re playing cards and stuff, just waiting. Justin and I were both nervous wrecks, but we tried to hold it together for Isaac. Tarren didn’t come down with us on this day.
Finally, it was time to take him back into the operating room, and they let me go with him. They could only let one of us go back there. I could tell it was really hard for Justin to say goodbye to him. I had all of my scrubs on, and we’re wheeling him in there. I’m trying to hold back the tears. Isaac starts making jokes with the nurses, and they’re all laughing.
Then they laid him down and were about to put the mask on. We didn’t want him to get scared then, so I was like, "Oh, Buddy, it’s just like your inhaler. Don’t worry, just breathe it in." Within a couple seconds, he was out.
They escorted me out into the hallway, and I just lost it. I started crying. I had held it together just long enough. They told Justin and I that the surgery would take about seven hours and gave us a little pager to keep us updated.
We decided to finally get some food because Isaac didn’t want us to eat earlier. We ordered, sat down and could barely touch our food. We didn’t say a word to each other. We were both just thinking about our little boy.
We would get a little page from the doctor every couple of hours, saying that the surgery was going fine. That’s all we would hear.
Finally, the surgeon came in and said that everything went well and that he was in his room so we could go see him. I didn’t know that I wouldn’t be prepared to see that.
When I went in and saw Isaac, I got really hot and flushed, and I almost fainted. It was shocking to see him laying like that in his bed. He wasn’t awake. My baby was lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to all those cords and machines.
Justin: I was glad to see him, but it hit me pretty hard, too. It didn’t even look like him. He just looked so pale. It was really hard to see him like that, but I pretty much stayed with him all night, every night. I can go on a couple hours of sleep and be okay, so I just stayed right there.
Tiffany: Justin was amazing and really held it together for both Isaac and myself. He stayed by Isaac’s bedside pretty much the entire time we were in the hospital. I’m so thankful I had him there.
Photo courtesy of the Dart family
Tiffany: When Isaac first woke up after his surgery, he was pretty heavily medicated. He was saying, "It hurts, it hurts." But we couldn’t do anything for him.
He said, "I don’t want to do this any more, I don’t want to have surgery." I explained to him that it was all done now and his heart was better, but that he needed to lay there and rest up. I told him his body was going to hurt for a while.
One of the first days he was in recovery, a volunteer came into play with the kids. That was the first day that we actually saw the sparkle come back into Isaac’s eyes. This lady brought him some Play-Doh and some tools and things like that. That really got him started to want to feel better and get back to himself.
After that, he wanted to start walking. He wanted to play. I have a video of him the first time he walked. It was amazing to see him do that—he loves watching that video. He took it slow, but after you could just tell he always wanted to get out of bed. He wanted to feel better.
Justin: He got more and more of the monitoring equipment taken off him every day. He started to look more like himself, and by the fourth or fifth day, he got to have everything except the blood pressure monitors taken off.
Tiffany: One of the last days we were there, they let him walk to some of the other floors, and there were therapy dogs there. The smile on his face was just priceless. That’s when I looked at Justin and said, ‘Our little boy is back.’ There was Isaac again, just so happy to be playing with those dogs.
We brought him home the Sunday following his Monday surgery, so we were in there for just about a week. His blood pressure was still a little high, but they let us monitor that from home. They wanted us to keep him resting to recover, but he wanted to be running around and playing, so that was hard for us.
Tiffany: The second week in January, we went in for a checkup and Dr. Van Bergen said he was doing much better than expected. He said he was good to go, back to his normal self.
I knew what Isaac was thinking: ‘Can I wrestle?’ He had gotten into wrestling the year before. He was a bit too young to compete back then, even though he was really good. We could really tell that he was just a brute. Tarren was also in wrestling, and Justin was coaching the team this year, so Isaac was just begging to get out there. Dr. Van Bergen said it would be fine!
I think Isaac had one practice. Then at the tournament that weekend he got third place in his age group. It was awesome. No one could believe what he’d just been through.
Justin: He wasn’t even supposed to be out there, and there he is, wrestling in tournaments. That was a proud father moment for me right there. All he’s been through, and eight weeks later, there he is. If you told anyone that knows him that he had heart surgery, they wouldn’t believe it. It’s like it never happened.
Tiffany: The support from our community, from people who would come by and say, "We're praying for you," or, "We're thinking about you," all of the people giving us tabs, who would just drop them off at our front door—to know that they all cared so much about us, that was just an amazing feeling. Our Christmas card this past year had a picture of Isaac in the hospital on one side, and Tarren with his pop tabs was on the other side. It was more like a thank you card. We sent it out to as many people as we could think of that helped us in any way, shape, or form through this whole thing as a way to share our gratitude.
Before this experience, Justin and I kind of just lived on our street and did our own thing. But now that this has happened and we have seen how supportive our community is, it has really made us want to support others.
We’re trying to instill that idea in our boys, too. We’re all healthy, we’re back where we need to be. Now it’s our turn to give to those other people in need and help out any way we can.
-The Dart family (Tiffany, Justin, Isaac and Terran) | Luxemburg, WI
The Dart family's story is part of Love Wisconsin's sponsored storytelling partnership with UW Health, focusing on stories of health, crisis, care, and resiliency. To learn more about American Family Children's Hospital, please visit https://www.uwhealthkids.org/.