2,500 join in Heart Walk

Walkers take off at the start of the Alachua County Heart Walk on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012 in Gainesville, Fla. The event featured a 5k race and walk to raise money for the American Heart Association.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Saturday, September 29, 2012 at 6:17 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, September 29, 2012 at 6:17 p.m.

On Saturday morning, the duck pond next to North Florida Regional Medical Center was flooded with about 4,000 people — not with patients, but with walkers participating in the Alachua County Heart Walk.

About 2,500 people participated in the 3.1-mile walk that helped raise donations in the fight against cardiovascular disease.

Kelley Frohlich, the regional director of the Alachua County American Heart Association, said the donations raised for Saturday's walk amounted to about $230,000 — so far.

Last year, the walk raised roughly the same amount. But since donations will be accepted for the next two weeks, Frohlich expects that number to surpass last year's totals and approach the organization's goal of $260,000.

Individual fundraisers like Cecile Feagle, who raised $4,505, and companies and teams, like UF & Shands and Archer Automotive & Tires, which raised $45,493 and $5,234, respectively, helped contribute to that donation goal.

But on Saturday, the focus wasn't about money. It was about the community.

Seventy companies participated this year, Frohlich said.

Tents speckled the duck pond lawn, and families from all around the community mingled and shared smiles and embraces. A DJ blasted pop hits on a small stage and led group exercises before the walk.

Hundreds of people were doing jumping jacks in unison as streams of sunlight spilled onto the pond. When the horn signaled the start, the walkers jaunted enthusiastically toward the start line.

"This is the most giving community I've ever seen," said Scott Costello, 36, co-chair of ACAHA. "They passionately believe in trying to help the community."

Costello said his favorite part of the walk is meeting the survivors.

One of those survivors is 6-year-old Eli Tuten. Like many victims of cardiovascular disease, Eli has experienced a complete failure to thrive — in his case at 2 months old.

He had trouble breathing, eating, sweating. He stopped gaining weight, hovering at a mere nine pounds.

He was experiencing cardiac failure.

Just a month later, Eli had open heart surgery. Dr. Mark Bleiweis, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Shands who specializes in pediatrics, performed the procedure, which saved Eli's life.

Tuten's mother, Della Tuten, 36, said performing that surgery would have been like doing surgery on the size of a small V8 can.

"It was just a constant struggle," she said. "There are actually no words to describe how horrible it was. It was unreal."

The surgery was on Oct. 19, 2006, and the Tutens said there was a heart walk that weekend. Because of the procedure's success, they agreed to start participating in the walk the very next year. They've now been walking since 2007.

On Saturday, the first-grader at Glen Springs Elementary, his mother, father Travis Tuten and 2-year-old sister Emma Tuten all completed the 3.1 miles together.

Della Tuten said her son is healthy now. They don't expect any future surgeries or nightmares and can rest easy.

"Eli is awesome," she said. "He's exceptional. His heart is happy, healthy, normal."

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