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TendHER Heart Luncheon Gave Mom Support She Needed
September 13th, 2013

After her teenage daughter was diagnosed with a rare disease and underwent a life-saving liver transplant, Sharon Gates sought a support group to help the girl through her recovery. 

But Simone wasn’t the only one who needed to be surrounded by others who had experienced such a traumatic health scare. Although she didn’t realize it immediately, Sharon also longed for the support she could only receive from other moms who had suffered through a similar nightmare. 

In June, Sharon bonded with several of those women at the fifth annual TendHER Heart Luncheon, an event that Bears cornerback Charles Tillman hosts through his Cornerstone Foundation to honor more than 150 moms of critically and chronically ill children for the sacrifices they make. 

“Until that luncheon I didn’t realize I had such a need, and then to be surrounded by moms who understood …,” Sharon said, pausing to compose herself. “I’m sorry they have their pain. I don’t want anyone to have the pain. But to be surrounded by these moms and have these moms to sit and just talk with in that setting, the impact for me was powerful.”

Sharon is grateful to Tillman and his wife, Jackie, for staging the TendHER Heart Luncheon, which was held at the Hilton Chicago. The All-Pro cornerback created the Cornerstone Foundation in 2005 to provide children with educational opportunities and resources to excel in the classroom. 

But after Tillman’s three-month-old daughter, Tiana, was diagnosed with a rare heart disorder and received a life-saving heart transplant in 2008, the mission of the foundation was changed to improving the lives of critically and chronically ill children. 

“I think it’s such a beautiful thing that they brought us all together and they’re bringing attention to this and sharing their journey and saying that you too can stand, you too can overcome and grow stronger and deal with what you’re going through and you are not alone,” Sharon said. “I think it’s such a beautiful thing what they did.” 

While she had received support from others during Simone’s medical crisis, nothing matched what Sharon experienced at the TendHER Heart Luncheon.

“I have my family, but it’s not the same,” Sharon said. “I work in a heath care setting; it’s not the same. But to talk to a mom who understands seeing their child who was vibrant and who is not vibrant and working to push them back to that vibrancy, it was just powerful to sit and talk with them and to know that somebody else understands and shares my pain.” 

Sharon’s nightmare became in October 2011 when, Simone, a 15-year-old student and competitive swimmer at Homewood-Flossmoor High School, was diagnosed with Wilson’s Disease, a genetic disorder that attacks the liver. When informed that their only child needed a liver transplant, life for Sharon and Michael Gates turned upside down. 

“As you can imagine, one day everything is perfect and the very next day you have a new normal and a life-threatening illness,” Sharon said. 

Fortunately for the Gates family, Simone received a liver transplant just 18 days after she was diagnosed. Nearly two years later, she is a healthy 17-year-old high school senior who is dealing more with the psychological aspects of her recovery.

“The doctors took care of her physically, but we’ve been working to get her back to where she was mentally,” Sharon said. “She lost so much school time and then she had to live isolated in a bubble. She’s getting re-acclimated to her friends and she’s just starting to get back into athletics.” 

Sharon, of course, is grateful that Simone beat her life-threatening illness and will never forget what it meant to attend the TendHER Heart Luncheon. 

“I think God put me in the right place at the right time with the right people,” Sharon said. “I so thank the Tillmans for making that experience possible and for doing what they do and keeping it on people’s minds that there are ways to survive and to overcome and that they’re not alone.”


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