CARY — Lucas Santos did a few pushups – the really tough kind where you clap your hands between each one.
They were a warmup for the race he was about to run, 10 months after doctors put a new heart in his chest.
More than 200 people gathered at the WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary on Saturday morning for the Run Your Heart Out 5K, one of several events organized over the past year to raise money to help pay for Santos’ medical expenses.
“It’s pretty much a run in honor of me, so I figured I should run too,” said Santos, an 18-year-old Cary High School senior.
For Santos, the journey to the finish line has been a long one. The heart condition he was born with left him too weak to march with his school’s band the last two years. He knew he’d need a heart transplant some day.
That day came Nov. 5, after a weeks-long stay at Duke Hospital. He spent three months recovering before he returned to school, where he carried a heavy academic load to make up for lost time in class. He was tired.
But by the time summer rolled around, Santos was running through his neighborhood a few times a week to get in shape. And now he’s marching again, playing trombone for the Cary High band.
While Santos is living the life of a typical teenager, a community effort is underway to pay his medical expenses. The national nonprofit Children’s Organ Transplant Association teamed with Santos’ family and set a goal to raise $60,000 that will cover long-term medical costs.
The group has already raised about $57,000, said Angela Padgett, a volunteer coordinator for the COTA effort. Some local restaurants have donated a portion of sales. Five jazz bands from local high schools put on a show in May. There was a big yard sale in June. And a golf tournament is planned for next month.
“It really brings you back to community and that people still care,” said Padgett, who attends First Baptist Church in Cary with the Santos family.
Lucas Santos’ mother, Simone, said she was “overwhelmed” by the community support.
“It’s just amazing to see,” she said. “There are a lot of good people out there, and they open their hearts to help.”
‘A chance at life’
Lucas Santos is thinking about the future. He wants to study engineering in college.
A heart transplant might have a way of changing a person’s perspective on life. For now, Santos said, he’s not sure how it’s changed him.
But his friends notice a difference.
“After his transplant, he just opened up around people,” said Kyle Donaldson, 17, a senior at Cary High.
When Donaldson met Santos four years ago, he said, his new friend was quiet and shy.
“He definitely is a lot more social,” said Linka Schleusener, 17. “I think he just realized he has … a chance at life again, and he’s going to live it out to his full potential.”
This semester at school, Santos is studying physics, calculus and English, along with his marching band class. With advanced placement classes under his belt, he has a 4.4 grade point average.
He turned 18 last Wednesday, but he didn’t do much to celebrate since it was a school night. He planned to see a movie and have dinner with his family on Saturday, he said.
But first, he ran.
Standing before the crowd Saturday morning, he had a simple request: “Let’s just run our hearts out.”
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