Written by Kim Mulford Courier-Post
SOMERDALE — A tangle of trucks, trains and toys sits in the corner of Riley O’Brien’s living room. Squatting next to the couch is the barrel-shaped tank he used for oxygen before his parents, Carol and Darren O’Brien, rushed him to the hospital in March to receive a new heart and lungs from an organ donor.
It’s been two months since Riley last played in his tidy, empty house. It will be several more before he can return.
Born with a rare birth defect affecting multiple organs, the 5-year-old endured nearly 30 heart catheterizations to keep him alive long enough to receive the triple transplant. It is unknown how long it will take for his body to recover from the surgery.
Heart-lung transplants are exceedingly rare in the United States. Though The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia would not yet say if Riley is a patient there, the hospital has performed more than 25 such operations, according to its website. An expert contacted through the American Society of Transplantation also would not discuss the needs of patients with heart-lung transplants.
But recovery is not the only problem facing Riley and his family. As it turns out, the ventilation in the boy’s family’s two-bedroom home runs up from the basement, where mold has set in. According to his aunt, Chris Tomasso, his fragile new lungs won’t be able to take it.
“Mold will shred new lungs,” Tomasso said. “That’s been weighing on Carol and Darren for over three years. They didn’t know how bad it was.”
A recent inspection revealed the house will require thousands of dollars and months of work to repair before he can come home. Termite damage, poor grading and a failing support beam are contributing factors, said Riley’s grandfather Kip Croneberger.
“You’re putting on Band-Aids, and you can only put Band-Aids for so long,” said Croneberger, a retired Cherry Hill police officer.
Thanks to a request from Riley’s friends in the Somerdale Fire Department, Camden County Habitat for Humanity is stepping in to help. An engineer has already examined the house and is preparing a report on the needed repairs, said Habitat’s executive director, Eugene Brooks. The family also wants to put on an addition to accommodate Riley’s needs.
“It’s nothing we can’t fix,” said Brooks, whose Camden-based nonprofit typically helps financially strapped families become homeowners.
In this case, it will help the O’Briens remain in their own home. Habitat wants to expand its work into the rest of the county, Brooks said. The Somerdale project will be its first outside of the city of Camden.
“We talked about it and wanted to see what we could do,” Brooks said. “We are looking for families in need. Looking at their financial situation as well, it made it easy for us to say it was something we wanted to help out with.”
This week, the boy felt well enough to paint at a table in his hospital room, Tomasso said.
“To see him smiling was amazing,” said Tomasso, who lives in Virginia. Besides her visits, she talks to her nephew through the FaceTime app on his iPad.
It’s too soon to say how much money it will take to fix the house, but a fundraising effort is already underway.
Moved by the O’Briens’ story, Cinnaminson residents Christine Turner and Lauren Neidert organized “Riley O’Brien Day” last month and raised about $14,000 through a run-walk event. Donations will help pay for the Habitat project.
Volunteers from local fire departments have already stepped forward to help the O’Briens fix their house, said Brooks.
In recent years, the family has also relied on social networking and a website to raise money to help pay for Riley’s medical costs. Carol O’Brien quit her job to take care of her youngest son; she has stayed in his hospital room since the transplant. Darren works in the maintenance department for the Gloucester County Institute of Technology, and comes to the hospital after work. Riley’s 13-year-old brother, Christian, has been staying with Croneberger.
Habitat’s involvement is “tremendous,” Tomasso said.
“It makes it all seem possible now,” she said. “It’s going to happen now.”
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