"I wouldn't have a daughter if it wasn't for Duke."
Mother and daughter share a tradition of gratitude for Duke Children's
Written by Lindsay Gordon-Faranda
Photos provided by Bobbi Bennett
For Barbara Sharpe and her daughter, Bobbi Bennett, giving monthly to Duke isn’t just a generous family tradition: it’s personal. This family of grateful patients are longtime Heroes for Hope for Duke Children’s. Heroes for Hope pledge to make monthly gifts to Duke Health and are the sustainers who provide the foundation for Duke Health’s ongoing missions of clinical care, medical research, and caregiver education.
“I wouldn’t have a daughter if it wasn’t for Duke,” Barbara says.
Hope during a grim prognosis
When Bobbi was born in Raleigh, in the mid-1960s, she had problems with her heart. Her family pediatrician referred her to Duke, where she was soon diagnosed with major congenital heart defects: multiple holes in her heart and leaky valves. Bobbi’s prognosis was grim, and her doctors weren’t sure she would live past six months, but Duke was already a pioneer in heart care. After Bobbi spent a month in the hospital and underwent several risky, new procedures and surgeries, Barbara and her husband, Bill, were able to take Bobbi home.
Bobbi would need regular treatment and more surgeries as she grew, and soon her Duke care team, including cardiologist Page Anderson, MD, and Gloria Stevens, a pediatric nurse, became like family. Despite her precarious start to life, Bobbi persevered, and the surgery she was predicted to need as a teenager, her third open heart surgery, was delayed until she was in her mid-20s.
Bobbi continued seeing Anderson until she was 30 years old and married and pregnant with her first child. Duke had recently opened an adult congenital heart clinic; before then, there wasn’t a need for an adult congenital clinic because there weren’t enough children with heart defects who survived into adulthood. Bobbi’s care was transitioned to this clinic, though she continued to consult Anderson on her care plan. While Anderson was cautious about Bobbi having children, he told her that he had always been incorrect regarding any restrictions she might face, and that as long as she was monitored by Duke’s high-risk pregnancy clinic, there was no reason why she couldn’t keep defying the odds.
Barbara Sharpe and her daughter, longtime Duke patient Bobbi Bennett.
Duke Children's pediatric cardiologist Page Anderson with his wife, Nadia (center), and Barbara Sharpe (right), at the wedding of Bobbi Sharpe.
Duke Children's pediatric cardiologist Page Anderson holds McKenzie Bennett at a Duke Intensive Care Nursery one-year anniversary gathering. Dr. Anderson passed away before Bobbi's fourth and final surgery, an enormous blow to her family.
Bobbi and her oldest daughter, McKenzie.
Bobbi was able to take her father, Bill, to a Duke Men's Basketball Game shortly before he passed from prostate cancer. From left to right: Barbara Sharpe, Bill Sharpe, Bobbi Bennett, and her husband, Tex Bennett.
The Bennett family. From left to right: Bobbi, husband Tex, younger sister Anna, and older sister McKenzie.
A rock through everything
Bobbi gave birth to a daughter, McKenzie, in 1994, after a normal and healthy pregnancy. However, labor complications resulted in an emergency c-section, and McKenzie wasn’t responsive during her first minutes of life. She had stopped breathing, and after she was revived and taken to Duke’s Intensive Care Nursery, she suffered two seizures. McKenzie also had trouble eating and spent eight days in the Intensive Care Nursery. Bobbi remembers how large McKenzie, who was born past her due date, looked compared to the other babies in the unit.
When McKenzie got to go home, she was given a regimen of seizure medication, and needed to be monitored by a neurologist. For her first year of life, McKenzie had some motor skill issues, and was late reaching certain milestones, such as crawling. However, after one year, the neurologist discharged McKenzie, and she has been healthy ever since. An athlete and dancer, she started a girls’ lacrosse team through Raleigh Parks and Recreation and ran cross country and played soccer in high school. Several years after McKenzie’s birth, Bobbi was given permission by Anderson to try for another child. Younger sister Anna was born at Duke three and a half years after her big sister. Neither McKenzie nor Anna have any health issues or heart defects.
Bobbi and her family maintained a relationship with Anderson and Stevens, one of her longtime nurses, for many years. Stevens attended Bobbi’s kindergarten graduation, and Anderson and his wife attended Bobbi’s wedding at Duke Chapel. Anderson was also McKenzie’s godfather, and he regularly attended McKenzie’s birthday parties. When Anderson passed away unexpectedly in November of 2008, Bobbi and her family were devastated. They had lost a member of their family.
“Page, for my parents, was a godsend,” Bobbi, who had her fourth and final heart surgery after Anderson’s death, says. “We wouldn’t have survived the situation if not for him. He was a rock through everything, even through McKenzie’s birth.”
The people at Duke have become part of our family and giving to support Duke is the right thing to do, but that’s not why I do it.
I do it because that’s what my heart tells me to do.
A legacy of care and support
When Bobbi’s father, Bill, was diagnosed with prostate cancer several years ago, there was no discussion of going elsewhere for his care: of course, they would come to Duke. Though Bill passed away from his cancer in early 2020, the relationship he and his family had with his care team at Duke Cancer Institute was no different than their relationship with other caregivers at Duke. “The doctors at Duke are so compassionate and caring and just great,” Barbara says. “When you have the experience that we’ve had, people just aren’t our doctors, they’re our friends,” Bobbi adds.
For Bobbi and Barbara, supporting Duke monthly every month is the least they can do to express their gratitude. Duke gave Barbara her daughter, and Duke gave Bobbi health, two beautiful children, and the promise of a long and fulfilling life.
“The chances back in 1964 of my making it weren’t very good. I wouldn’t be here, and I honestly don’t think that my daughters would be here, if it wasn’t for Duke and the decisions that they made and the access that they had to cutting-edge things another hospital might not have,” Bobbi says.
Barbara agrees, and also appreciates the ease of supporting through the Heroes for Hope program. “The beauty of giving month to month: if you set a certain amount you want to give, you don’t even think about it. Giving becomes natural.” It is also easy to adjust monthly giving, and Barbara and Bobbi have increased their monthly donations over the years.
Bobbi is also a regular volunteer for Duke Children’s and Duke Health. With Barbara, she has answered phones and shared her story on air during the annual MIX 101.5 Radiothon for Duke Children’s; Bobbi also serves on the Duke Health Patient and Family Advisory Council. Bobbi began her sustainer giving with Radiothon. Loyal donors to Radiothon currently comprise Duke Health’s largest group of Heroes for Hope.
Even with the hardships and uncertainties of 2020, halting donations has not even crossed Bobbi's and Barbara’s minds, and giving to Duke remains a cherished family tradition. “We are a middle-class family, but I’d have no family if I didn’t have Duke,” Bobbi says. “The people at Duke have become part of our family and giving to support Duke is the right thing to do, but that’s not why I do it. I do it because that’s what my heart tells me to do.”
A heart that still beats strongly today, because of Duke.
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