A Spartan emerges

Ponte Vedra senior perseveres despite heart defect


After surviving three open-heart surgeries by the age of 18, Avi Wolf doesn’t shy away from physical activity. Instead, he has learned to embrace it, and live his life with a level of optimism and motivation unlike most his age.

The Ponte Vedra High School senior is gearing up for his sixth Spartan Race on April 28 in Jacksonville, despite living with a congenital heart defect called Tetralogy of Fallot. Having previously competed in the obstacle course races in Jacksonville, Miami and Tampa, the Sawgrass resident will this time take on the Spartan Super, which consists of more than 25 obstacles and eight miles of rugged terrain. The following day, Wolf will join his younger cousins for the kids’ race, and then will wrap up the weekend with the Spartan Sprint, a tamer yet still daunting endeavor comprised of over 20 obstacles and three miles of terrain.

“I’m going to be hurting,” laughs Wolf.

The local teen was diagnosed with Tetralogy of Fallot upon his birth on Sept. 11, 1999. 19 years later, the Ponte Vedra senior is all too familiar with his condition: He’s writing a 15-page college-style thesis on the topic for his AP Physics class.

“My pulmonary valve was not functioning correctly, so it was removed,” explained Wolf. “There was a hole between my right and left ventricle, which was then repaired with a Gore-Tex patch.”

According to the American Heart Association, Tetralogy of Fallot is comprised of four features: A hole is present between the lower chambers of the heart; an obstruction exists from the heart to the lungs; the aorta lies over the hole in the lower chambers; and the muscle surrounding the lower right chamber becomes overly thickened. According to Wolf’s findings, the heart defect occurs in less than one in 2,000 live births and is the most common cyanotic congenital heart defect with 95 percent of patents living beyond the age of 20.  

Wolf’s first surgery took place just before he was four months old, and the second occurred after his first birthday. His most recent surgery happened in June 2017, a few months before his 18th birthday, and featured the insertion of a new pulmonary valve, which he said helps his heart function significantly better.

Regardless, the lifelong Ponte Vedra resident said the surgeries have taken a toll on his body, and he’s still not attaining 100 percent closure with the valve.

Instead of looking for pity, however, Wolf works harder. After two-and-a-half weeks of the June 2017 surgery, Wolf was back at his gym, Momentum Wellness in Ponte Vedra, to regain the muscle he had lost. Friends and fellow Momentum members Inger and Pat Geraghty, CEO of Florida Blue, took notice.

“Avi made us want to work harder, complain less and appreciate our own health,” said the couple in an email to the Recorder. “Avi is an inspiration … a young man who has faced three heart surgeries and chooses to be optimistic while continuing to challenge himself in life.”

The Geraghtys served as the chairs of the 2018 First Coast Heart and Stroke Ball, which raised a record-breaking $1 million dollars for the American Heart Association. In respect to Wolf’s perseverance and strength, the couple asked the teen to feature his story at the 60th annual event held at Sawgrass Marriott Resort & Spa on March 3.

“It was very humbling to see all of the great work the people at the American Heart Association are doing for so many people,” said Wolf about the event. “I’m really lucky that I’m still able to be so physically active and be able to go run, go outside, play football with my friends and do a Spartan Race with my mom and dad. A lot of people with my heart condition aren’t able to do that.”

Moving forward, Wolf doesn’t necessarily know what the future will hold for him and his heart condition. He said the new valve could last between 20 years and a lifetime, but the timetable is unknown due to the new technology involved in the surgery. What he does know, however, is that he plans to keep physical fitness and a healthy lifestyle as priorities in his life and encourage others to do the same.

“I want to encourage people to eat healthy,” said Wolf, who will attend University of South Florida in the fall to study mechanical engineering. “If you don’t know how to, Google it. Try to be as active as you can. … You have to do what’s best for your body.”