Maryland based-trainer Phil Schoenthal used to become upset when things did not go his way in a sport filled with adversity. Not anymore.
He remains passionate about winning and the attention to detail that requires, but his perspective radically changed when his son Emerson, then 3 years old, was diagnosed with restrictive cardiomyopathy last spring.
The condition is extraordinarily rare in a child that age, and the diagnosis led Schoenthal and his wife, Sarah, to search the Internet for information. The details were crushing.
“It's one of those things when you go home and Google it, it's got nothing nice to say,” Schoenthal said. “There is no cure for it. There is no treatment for it. You get a transplant or die.”
The muscles in the lower chambers of the heart were not pumping properly, leading the upper chambers to become grossly enlarged. Although Emerson weighed only 30 pounds at the time, he was placed on the list for a heart that weighed 20 to 50 pounds.
Schoenthal and his family suddenly found themselves in a terrifying race against time. Emerson's condition deteriorated until he needed constant monitoring at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He was admitted after Thanksgiving, beginning an agonizing wait for a suitable heart that would save him.
“The terrible part of the whole thing,” Schoenthal said, “is you're waiting for another family to have a tragedy with a child and make that decision for organ donation.”
The Schoenthals also have a daughter, Bryn, 11, and a son, Jason, 9. With Sarah almost constantly at Emerson's side, they will be forever grateful to those who helped them through the crisis until Emerson underwent a successful transplant on Jan. 18 from an unknown donor who died in Louisville.
Family members arrived steadily to tend to Bryn and Jason. Victor Rosales, a valued employee, delayed his dream of becoming a jockey to assist at the barn. That helped Schoenthal spend afternoons at Johns Hopkins before he returned home to Crownsville, Md., to devote time to his other two children.
“I feel like they are family to me. It was something I had to do,” Rosales said of his selfless decision.
Schoenthal did not miss a morning at the barn until the transplant surgery and the day following the operation. “He was definitely the glue that held the family together,” Sarah said.
Schoenthal was especially touched by offers of help from rival trainers and virtually everyone he knows on the Maryland circuit.
“People are willing to drop everything they are doing to help you,” he said. “Even though you are out there competing every day and fighting for the same piece of bread, it's still a community, it's still a family.”
One owner offered to assist the Schoenthals by renting an apartment near the hospital for them. Another was willing to claim horses and run them at lower levels so the trainer could be sure to maintain a healthy winning percentage.
Even without such help, Schoenthal's operation enjoyed a solid year. His horses won at a 17 percent clip, with 34 victories from among 201 starters and brought home purses totaling $1,223,788. The season was highlighted by 38-1 Elevated Vision's upset in the $75,000 Politely Stakes at Laurel Park at the end of December.
Schoenthal still struggles to manage his emotions in describing what Elevated Vision's performance meant.
“Things were getting a little bit dire and desperate, the world was falling down on top of you,” he said. “And then the filly jumps up and wins a stake. It was a shot of medicine that we needed at the time.”
The call the Schoenthal's desperately awaited came at approximately 3 a.m. on Jan. 18. A heart that matched up well with the failing Emerson had been located in Louisville. Dr. Narutoshi Hibino took a private jet there and immediately returned to Johns Hopkins with the organ. By 11 p.m. that evening, after eight hours of surgery, Emerson's heart was functioning properly for the first time in his young life.
A child who had been rather quiet and somewhat listless is now a delightfully boisterous 4-year-old. He was especially so on Feb. 17, when Rosales, 29, dedicated his first victory to him. Rosales guided home Pink Pearl, trained by Schoenthal, in a $22,000 maiden claiming race on Feb. 17 at Laurel Park.
“Best moment ever,” Rosales said. “It was like I won the Kentucky Derby.”
Emerson sure acted as though Rosales had brought home the roses in the emotional post-race celebration.
“Emerson now thinks that Victor is just the greatest jockey alive,” Sarah said.
The Schoenthals have become passionate about the need to raise awareness for organ donations. Many patients die while on long waiting lists. In an effort to express their gratitude, they recently used a third party to attempt to reach those associated with the child whose death and heart donation ultimately saved Emerson. They have not yet received a response.
Owners rallied behind Emerson by naming 2-year-olds with him in mind. Schoenthal welcomed into his barn Heart Hero, Gifted Heart, Determined Heart and Strong And Brave.
Emerson means strong and brave.
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