When Riley was only a few weeks old, doctors tried to stretch his aortic valve opening, but the procedure failed, and little Riley wound up with complete heart failure. Doctors told Mallory and Adam Olsheski, Riley’s parents, that he wouldn’t make it to his first birthday if he didn’t get a heart transplant. ​“Our whole world was upside down and falling apart,” Mallory says.

The gift of life

Mallory and Adam spent the next few months at Riley’s side in the cardiac critical care unit at the Toronto SickKids Hospital — a five-hour drive from their home in Pembroke, Ontario. “The nurses would often kick us out because they said we needed to rest,” Mallory recalls.

On one such night in early March 2012, Mallory had just returned to Ronald McDonald House, where she and her family were staying, when at 9:00 p.m. the family received a phone call from Riley’s cardiologist. Fearing the worst, Mallory screamed for her children to get their dad.

“I was shaking. I couldn’t breathe. And, I thought ­— ‘I can’t have this conversation alone, I’m not strong enough,’” Mallory says.

But fear quickly turned to excitement when the voice on the other end of the phone informed the Olsheski family that they had a heart for Riley and were going to operate immediately.

“When I got out and started looking into it, I thought — Why wouldn’t a parent want to protect their children?” Mallory says.

Life after surgery

Heart transplants are always fraught with risks. But danger continues to loom even after surgery is performed.

Patients like Riley who receive a heart transplant are required to take immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of their lives so that their bodies don’t reject the new organ. These drugs work by repressing the action of T lymphocytes, but can have devastating effects on the immune system, leaving patients more vulnerable to infections and unable to receive vaccinations.

As a result, a highly infectious virus like measles could be deadly for someone like Riley.

Importance of mass vaccination

When Mallory was given the news that Riley couldn’t be vaccinated, she was initially not concerned. Mallory thought vaccines were mandatory for children starting school, so Riley would be safe because “community immunity” protects the few people who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons.

She was shocked to learn, however, that some parents buck the advice of nearly all leading health authorities and choose to not have their children immunized.

“When I got out and started looking into it, I thought — Why wouldn’t a parent want to protect their children?” Mallory says.

“With measles, mumps, rubella — the fever alone can cause someone to become encephalitic. You can wind up with febrile seizures, hearing loss, blindness, organ failure. While the odds of having a vaccine-related injury are incredibly low.”

A parent’s advocacy

In facing these challenges, Mallory has become an outspoken advocate for vaccines, urging other parents to make sure their children get vaccinated. Not just for Riley’s sake, but for their children’s sake as well.

“Our children are our future, and it isn’t fair to make any single child suffer from a disease that was eradicated years ago.”