Physics junior Seth Rippentrop and business administration junior Tate Lewis could not have predicted they would survive the same rare heart condition in the same hospital and make it to college. And they certainly didn’t plan on going to the same university – UTD – or becoming roommates.
The pair shared a different type of room before, when they were both born in August 2002 in the Children’s Health hospital NICU. Rippentrop and Lewis were diagnosed with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome, or HLHS, and were given a 40% chance of survival. The friends defied those odds, now both 21 and pursuing their degrees at UTD.
“Knowing Seth is really cool because I know someone on campus that’s the same year as me that has the same heart defect and is somebody I can look over to,” Lewis said. “You know, we can be there for each other.”
Both juniors underwent challenging medical trials, with Lewis having five open heart surgeries and Rippentrop having three. In this time, there was always a factor of uncertainty concerning their survival, which left an emotional weight on both the juniors and their families.
“It was rough for us, but we were babies at the time, we didn’t know a lot. But for our parents, it was very difficult,” Rippentrop said. “I’m an only child, so for my parents it was their first and only child that was going through this, so it was very hard on them.”
Beyond their time with Children’s Health, they met every summer from ages six to 18 at Camp Moss, a camp for children and adolescents who have congenital heart defects. They built their friendship throughout those years and were surrounded by people who understood and accommodated their condition while allowing them to grow into their interests.
“What’s nice about this is just knowing that there’s other people out there that you can talk to that are going through the same thing and have those same limitations,” Rippentrop said. “The big thing about Camp Moss is you’re not that special heart kid anymore, but there’s a certain goodness to that. The fact that you aren’t just this one-off event, and there are other people that you can understand.”
Despite the limitations caused by their condition, they continue to engage in their individual interests at UTD. Rippentrop loves astrophysics and explores his faith through science as the president of an apologetics club, and Lewis plays for the UTD golf team.
“Growing up I wasn’t able to play physical sports because of my heart,” Lewis said.” I couldn’t go to my friend’s houses, and I was always looked after growing up, with a heart defect like mine and a pacemaker. And at the time I began to play golf and found my passion for it.”
Rippentrop and Lewis spent their life with HLHS, but beyond the scars and the surgeries, their perseverance has been recognized by multiple news channels, including NBCDFW and The Dallas Express. They want people with HLHS and their families to recognize that the journey through health complications may not be straightforward, but to never give up hope.
“I know that there’s so many kids out there that if given a chance to live a life, they will be able to live a life outside of their heart defect, to varying degrees,” Rippentrop said. “They can live a life where they forget about it sometimes and just be normal, and that’s a big thing.”
Lewis and Rippentrop take pride in showing the public that it is possible to defeat the odds, and that while having a medical limitation can be emotionally taxing, it isn’t the end.
“Yes, we are part of the story, but I think that main thing is to give others hope,” Lewis said. “The bigger story is to help others in the same situation.”