Gobczynski, Andy

Andrew Gobczynski with his son, A.J., a short time before a heart condition struck down the young father. The family has since started the Andrew Gobczynski Big Heart Foundation.

News Report Staff

After losing their son, Andrew, to an undetected heart condition three years ago, Leon and Becky Gobzcynski wanted to do something to prevent other parents facing a similar tragedy.

They and their daughter, Stephanie Uebinger, Andrew’s twin sister, founded the Andrew Gobczynski Big Heart Foundation to help fund cardiology testing of young people to see whether they have a condition similar to Andrew’s.

He was a talented basketball player for Teutopolis High School, earning All-State honors, and at Eastern Illinois University, where he was team captain his senior year. He was active in other sports as well.

Andrew was married and a father of two and working in Wood River when he was found deceased on Dec. 8, 2014, from sudden cardiac arrest. He was 33.

It was determined he suffered from a condition relating to a damaged heart. The problem had never been detected during sports physicals and there were no warning signs before his sudden death.

The Big Heat Foundation’s free heart screenings were conducted first at Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center in Coles County with 94 students involved. Last fall, the Foundation worked with HSHS St. Anthony’s Memorial Hospital to screen 41 high school athletes.

That latest round of heart testing in October revealed four had heart anomalies.

“One was serious, while three demanded more testing,” Leon said.

The Gobzcynski family, including Leon and Becky, plus Stephanie Uebinger, who coordinates many Foundation activities, don’t have direct contact with the families of those students through health information privacy laws, but they hope the parents appreciate having a heads-up on a potentially fatal medical condition.

“You don’t want to get news like that, but if it exists, you want to know it as soon as possible,” Leon said.

The initial testing is painless with a doctor conducting a cardiogram on the students. Some additional testing might involve physical activity through a stress test.

The targeted age group includes high school sophomores due to their physical development at that age.

“That is what the doctors target because that group becomes young adults at that age,” Leon explained.

The Foundation is working to make this community aware of the risk to young people from undetected heart disease. Sudden cardiac arrest is the number one cause of death for student athletes. Sometimes, obvious symptoms are ignored, Leon noted. It also strikes down adults as well.

“To me, this is the one area of health that people tend to ignore the symptoms. They will say, ‘That numbness in my arm comes and goes.’ It’s all about denial,” Leon added.

Many in the community have embraced the Foundation through support for the annual fundraisers, a wine tasting event and a golf tournament. Groups or individual have also come forward with donations. St. Anthony’s Memorial Hospital is also generous with its assistance on the free screenings as well.

“One of our goals is to keep this going forever,” Leon said with pride. “People in this county have been so generous and we are very grateful. To me, it indicates that they are helping with this need, but they believe this is possibly going to save people in their family.”

A goal for this year is to expand the outreach of the testing in two ways. First, arrangements are being made to coordinate the heart screenings in the summer during the time of school sports physicals. In addition, the screenings will not just concentrate on athletes, but include active students in band, theater or other extra-curricular activities.

The fact that the screenings can help young people is fulfilling for the Gobczynski family. After three years, they are still in the healing process.

“It helps us heal. It gives us a purpose to carry on. And it helps keep Andrew’s legacy alive,” said Becky.

On Leon’s desk is a coffee cup with photographs of his four grandchildren, including A.J. and Shreya. Priya, Andrew’s wife, enjoys family outings, including her in-laws and Stephanie’s young children, James and Kathryn. The cup helps brighten Leon’s day at his insurance office.

“Our sadness is touched by different things now. It might be a word, a song or when you drive by a gymnasium,” Leon said softly.

On those days, he reaches out and turns that cup and looks at those four young faces. Suddenly, he smiles again.

His involvement with the Foundation has a similar result as well. It’s about saving lives and families from suffering a loss that could be prevented.