Football, faith and fate — two families brought together across miles

By KAREN WORKMAN  |  Of The Oakland Press

The old saying may be that God works in mysterious ways, but in some instances, it seems He can be rather straightforward.

Take the story of the Hixon and Sneed families, for instance — separated by about 1,000 miles, but still managing to find each other for the sake of a sick 4-year-old boy.

“They just happened to be at that (University of Michigan) football game,” said Malyn Sneed, who helps her husband Brian organize fundraising events called Impact of Hope. “The biggest college football stadium in America. Out of all the seats in that stadium, (the Hixons) were placed right there. It felt like it was a sign from God.”

The Sneeds, from South Carolina, are hosting a fundraising event in Michigan that will benefit the Hixons, an Oxford Township family.

Doug and Monica Hixon are parents to 4-year-old twins Dylan and David. Dylan was born with a rare heart condition and has endured countless complications and open heart surgeries since birth.

The Sneeds, also parents, live in South Carolina. The same year Dylan was born, they were inspired by personal circumstances to find a way to give back to families with children in need.

Dylan’s story

Dylan has a complex heart condition called L-Transposition of the Great Arteries, causing the right and left lower chambers of his heart to be reversed and reversing the blood flow pattern.

The Oakland Press first published a story about Dylan last September, just prior to Dylan having his third high-risk open heart surgery.

The little boy with spiky hair and a mischievous grin had already been through so much by then — in addition to the surgeries, he’d had a mild stroke, gone through cardiac arrest, had pacemakers and feeding tubes inserted and spent months on life support.
The surgery on September 20 was supposed to fix leaky valves and make other repairs to his heart. It was the family’s only option after Dylan — whose body had a 90 percent chance of rejecting an organ donation — was taken off the heart transplant list.

But the surgery came with its own set of risks. Fixing the leaky valves would mean better blood flow, but it could also make the pressure in his heart too great to circulate blood at all — making massive heart failure was a realistic consequence.

The Hixons were given a vacation to Disney World through the Make-A-Wish Foundation before surgery. A neighbor, Jadwiga Jones, also organized a fundraiser centered around providing a fun time for Dylan and David, and the Oxford community rallied around the family.

Doctors expected to immediately put Dylan on life support after the surgery, but that did not end up being necessary.

Instead, Dylan made what doctors called a remarkable recovery. He was released from the hospital just eight days later.

Impact of Hope

In 2008, the Sneeds learned that a friend’s child had a degenerative disease that would eventually lead to blindness. Soon after, a coworker was diagnosed with stomach cancer.

“(Brian) was like, ‘God, what can I do to help these people?” Malyn said.

He had an idea to ask businesses to sponsor a T-shirt, use the proceeds to cover the cost of making the shirts and then selling them as tickets for an event. The Sneeds called upon local churches and youth groups to put on a talent show for the event, and organized a dinner as part of the night too.

The first year’s event was more successful than the couple could have predicted, raising thousands of dollars that was then split and donated to the two families.

“That was kind of how it all started,” said Malyn of forming their organization, Impact of Hope.

The funds currently are being distributed through the Sneeds’ church, Legacy Outreach in Pauline, South Carolina, which has a 501c3 nonprofit designation. The Sneeds are also pursuing an independent nonprofit status for Impact of Hope.

After last year’s event, Brian began wanting to teach churches outside of his local area how to host similar fundraisers. How he was going to do that, though, remained an unsolved question.

One fateful September day

While Dylan was recovering from his surgery at the University of Michigan last September, the Hixons stayed nearby at the Ronald McDonald House.

One day, the hospital gave Doug — an Ohio State fan — two tickets to a Wolverine football game.

At first hesitant to go, Doug decided it would be good for him and David to take a break from the hospital, even if it meant cheering for his favorite team’s arch rival.

Meanwhile, the Sneed family was in Michigan visiting Malyn’s family in Centreville, where her father, Don Smith, is a pastor at the Firm Foundation Ministries.

While on their way to attend the same Wolverine football game that Doug and David were at, Don asked Brian about bringing Impact of Hope to Michigan.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, I appreciate that, but how are we ever going to find out who we’re supposed to benefit?’” Brian said. “I’m in South Carolina, you’re in Michigan ... (Don) said, ‘God will show us.’”

The two arrived at The Big House in Ann Arbor and took their seats. When they spotted a man struggling to juggle food, drinks and a toddler while heading to their stadium seats in front of Brian and Don, the son and father-in-law offered to help. A conversation ensued.

Doug told the men about Dylan’s surgery and how the hospital had given him tickets to the game. After finding out Dylan was the twin brother of the toddler sitting with Doug, Brian said he knew the Hixons were the family Impact of Hope was meant to benefit.

“We’d just been talking about how will we do it and who will God show us, and (Doug) comes and sits down right in front of us,” Don said.

Brian added: “To us, it was just divine intervention.”

For the past year, the Sneeds, in conjunction with Don and volunteers from his Centreville congregation, have been planning the benefit. Ironically, it is scheduled for Sept. 10 — the same Saturday the Oxford community came together for a benefit for the Hixons last year.

The Sneeds surprised the Hixons with the news of the benefit by phone last week, and the two families met in Oxford on Thursday.

“I didn’t know anything about Doug having met these two persons at the game,” Monica said. “I’m just thankful, very, very thankful. They got my heart.”

A long year

While the Sneeds were busy planning the Michigan Impact of Hope event — which will also benefit another Michigan child diagnosed with cancer at six weeks old — the Hixons were on yet another rollercoaster year with Dylan’s health.

Dylan’s health improved significantly after the September surgery, but by January, he was showing signs of trouble.

Doctors decided to replace the mitral valve they’d repaired just months earlier.

On April 15, Dylan’s had his fourth open heart surgery. The surgery was a success and Dylan’s health has improved greatly in the past few months — his color now pink rather than pale and his activity level has skyrocketed, Monica said. Dylan’s growth remains stunted, though.

If he does grow, a future surgery to repair his pulmonary valve can be done in a more minimally invasive way. If he doesn’t, he may face another open heart surgery.

“That’s all I’m praying for, he just needs to get bigger,” Monica said. “But then you deal with another thing — he gets bigger and the question is, is his heart going to tolerate it?”

As for his long-term prognosis, Dylan’s condition is too complex and rare to have a concrete idea of what the future may hold.

“By no means do we feel we’re out of the woods, but we can say he’s doing the best he’s ever done before in his life, and that’s a lot to say,” Doug said.