JOHNSBURG – Six-year-old Emily Swiercz couldn't build any snowmen this winter.
The Johnsburg girl was recovering from open heart surgery, during which doctors cut a valve to open it, alleviating some of the pressure.
"She couldn't run. She couldn't carry her backpack. Her brother had to carry it for her," said her mother, Valerie Swiercz. "No playing in the snow all winter. It was too much. The snow really got to her."
And because Sissy – as her three siblings call her – couldn't go out, all four of them stayed inside.
Emily and her twin brother, Charles, were born to Valerie and Chris Swiercz through an emergency caesarean section performed because of Charles' dropping heartbeat, and while Charles has not suffered any long-term side effects, Emily was diagnosed with a heart murmur and a hole in the wall of her heart.
She's been going to Children's Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee every six months ever since as doctors monitored her condition – and her weight.
Once she reached 35 pounds, they'd be able to perform surgery, but on her birthday last November, Emily collapsed while on the phone with her grandmother.
"When she passed out, that was a heart attack for me," Valerie Swiercz said. "If I was going to have a heart attack, that day was the day. I did panic. I thought I could be cool and prepared because I knew something could happen like that, but I freaked out."
Several tests revealed Emily's heart was hour-glass shaped, showed signs of collapsing, was working too fast and was enlarged. The hole in the wall of her heart had also grown.
The doctor suggested performing surgery as soon as possible.
The Swiercz family has insurance through Chris's work at U.S. Machinery Movers, but between the deductible and the 15 percent they're responsible for, the bills have piled up.
"At $76,000, we stopped counting," Valerie Swiercz said. "I'm looking. I started stressing. That is just from her surgery. That's not including every week that we had to go down to Chicago afterward."
Valerie Swiercz had to put her work on hold for two weeks. She works as a bus driver and at a gas station in Crystal Lake.
Emily will also need follow-up surgery for a valve replacement, either when she's done growing or when the replacement becomes necessary.
To help cover the costs, a group of friends, who had formed a charitable group called 4 Friends By Friends last year, have planned a bowling fundraiser.
"That's the reason why we all came together, four friends to support people that need that kind of support because we understand more than anything what it's like to lose a child or lose a family member or to have something be wrong with one of our children," said the group's president, Misty Ahrens of Crystal Lake.
If you go
The Striking Out Heart Defects benefit will take place from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday at Raymond's Bowl and Entertainment Center, 3960 Johnsburg Road.
The cost is $20 in advance and $25 at the door, and includes lane and shoe rental. Entertainment will also include silent auctions, 50-50 raffles, kids games and face painting. The kids at Ringwood Primary Center have decorated bowling pins, which will also be auctioned off.
For more information or to purchase tickets, go to 4friendsbyfriends.com.