Abby Johnson and Herky 2Abby Johnson didn’t expect the third annual Iowa Ladies Football Academy to hold such a special place in her heart.

In fact, it moved her to tears.

Abby, a 28-year-old from Ottumwa, Iowa, joined 224 others for the June 8 event, a partnership with the University of Iowa football program that offers women a hands-on immersion in the Hawkeye football experience and the opportunity to benefit UI Children’s Hospital through personal fundraising. This year’s group raised $230,523; in its three-year history, participants have generated more than $717,000.

For Abby, attending the Iowa Ladies Football Academy meant more than learning “Xs and Os” or meeting Hawkeye players and coaches.

That’s because her connection to UI Children’s Hospital is personal.

“Twenty-eight years ago, my family was told I needed immediate surgery at the young age of 6 months old,” Abby wrote in an email to academy organizers following the event. “At the time my family had just moved back to Iowa from Ohio…my dad started his new job the same day my mom took me to UI Children’s Hospital.”

Abby was born with pulmonary stenosis, a narrowing or obstruction of the heart’s pulmonary valve that separates the right ventricle (one of the chambers of the heart) and the pulmonary artery, which carries oxygen-depleted blood to the lungs.

What doctors in Ohio had initially considered a case of normal heart murmur was in reality a more serious condition. An exploratory heart catheterization was scheduled, but during the testing it was determined that open-heart surgery would be necessary to correct the defect in the valve.

One week after receiving the diagnosis at UI Children’s Hospital, Abby underwent her first open-heart surgery.

“I was so young I don’t recall anything, but from the stories of my family it was a magical place where doctors and nurses did nothing but give love and support to our family and gave us hope.”

At age 2, Abby had another heart surgery procedure. It was “another successful surgery and nerve-wracking event for our family,” she wrote, “but with the amazing staff and university support my family kept their faith and hope alive.”

Since then, Abby has not only stayed healthy, she’s exceeded expectations.

“My parents were told before the surgeries the odds were not in my favor for many things, but they would fight to do everything to prove those odds wrong,” Abby wrote. “I wasn’t supposed to live a normal childhood, or at least not a very active one. I am now 28 and healthy with the same heart the doctors fixed when I was 2. I wasn’t supposed to be an active child. Well, I played softball, volleyball, and basketball up to my senior year in high school.”

Later, as a young mother-to-be with a history of heart issues, Abby turned to the UI for prenatal care and tests to see if her baby would be born with heart defects or other complications. Thankfully, Abby’s pregnancy went smoothly, and on June 22, 2003, her daughter Meghan was born.

All told, it’s no surprise Abby felt such strong emotions as she took part in the Iowa Ladies Football Academy activities at Kinnick Stadium, located just across the street from UI Children’s Hospital.

“We are so thankful for the hospital, and we are so glad there is now an event where we can give back and help more families,” Abby wrote. “This event means so much to us - not only for our story but for all the stories untold and still to come.

“Again, June 8 was one of the best days of my life, and I thank you all for giving me the opportunity to share that day with you,” Abby’s email concluded. “I met so many incredible people and, like many of them, I am counting down the days to next year’s event! It’s great to be a Hawkeye!”