CARSON, Calif. – A.J. DeLaGarza is renowned for his tenacity on the pitch, but over the past four months, the LA Galaxy defender has been tested in a manner far more challenging than anything that he’s ever faced on the field.
In late April, DeLaGarza’s unborn son Luca was diagnosed with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome, a congenital heart defect in which the left side of the heart is too underdeveloped to provide enough blood flow for the body. With just one functioning ventricle pumping blood, Luca will require surgeries immediately following birth as doctors attempt to correct the defect.
“When I first heard it, I was in shock,” DeLaGarza told LAGalaxy.com, recalling the 20-week appointment where he learned of Luca’s ailment. “The doctor knew what I did for a living and he just said that my kid would never be a professional athlete. That’s what I always wanted out of my kids, so I was understandably upset, but after that I shut down.”
Dealing with the pain and frustration of the diagnosis has been a daily task for DeLaGarza and his wife Megan. During the last 17 weeks, the couple has endured numerous doctors’ appointments as plans are shaped for the first minutes, hours, days and weeks of Luca’s life.
Amid all the visits and endless chatter about Luca’s predicament, the presence of the woman that he’s dated since his days at the University of Maryland has been DeLaGarza’s saving grace.
“I couldn’t go through this without someone that I’ve known for so long. Megan has been the strongest person in this for what she’s going through,” DeLaGarza said. “We both have our breakdowns but for the most part, she’s been strong. It makes it easier for me to come to the stadium and not stress about it because when she stresses then I stress.”
They’ve hardly had to go alone, however.
Immediately after word came down about Luca’s diagnosis support began flooding in across the soccer world and from family, friends and fans of DeLaGarza. Whether it was A.J.’s family members getting matching tattoos of the heart that DeLaGarza emblazoned on his wrist immediately after that fateful visit or a Hermosa Beach fundraiser thrown by the couples’ friends, the well wishes have been constant.
During Wednesday’s match with D.C. United the Galaxy will offer their support to DeLaGarza by donning “Luca Knows Heart” shirts during the team introductions. The shirts were created in tandem with the LA Galaxy Foundation who will also be selling the shirts to support Children’s Hospital Los Angeles’ heart institute where Luca will stay for the first weeks of his life.
“We’ve been dealing with this for 17 weeks now and we’ve had so much support from the team, friends, family and everyone who have gone above and beyond to make us comfortable,” DeLaGarza said. “At first, I was hesitant for help, but now everyone wants to do it because they’re good people. I’d do the same for anyone else.
“It’s big that the [Galaxy Foundation] were able to do this. I just started a fundraising page for the heart center at CHLA and it’s important for me to help other families who are in need more than I am,” DeLaGarza continued. “To be able to do that for those that need the care is probably something that we’re going to do for the rest of our lives.”
Amid all the struggles, DeLaGarza has no plans as of now to take a hiatus from the LA Galaxy, which he admits has provided the only sanctuary in such a trying time.
“Of course, it’s a different situation when you actually see him and all the things that he’ll have to go through, but I think that I’ll be fine because this is a place where I go and when I step onto the field, everything else will be taken care of after,” said DeLaGarza. “It’ll be on my mind, but I’ll do my best to go hard every day and when I’m playing, I’m playing to win.”
But once the final whistle blows against D.C. United, DeLaGarza’s attention will change—fast.
Luca is scheduled to be born via C-section at 9:00 am PT on Thursday morning at Kaiser Permanente Hospital and then will immediately be transported to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles where he’ll undergo the first of several surgeries to correct the defect. DeLaGarza is expected to be in the ambulance as Luca is transported and will be present throughout the procedure, but he has already been warned by CHLA physicians to maintain some semblance of normalcy in his life during Luca’s first days.
“We’ll see how it goes. Obviously for the first couple of days we’ll stay there but even they recommended that we not stay there every single night and getting away to sleep in our own beds,” he said. “At the beginning though, you’re going to want to be by his side 24/7 because you don’t know what is going to happen.”
Through all the uncertainty and worry about his son’s first hours—and beyond—DeLaGarza has maintained a tireless optimism that his son will overcome.
“Right now he’s safe inside his mother, but when he comes out he’s going to have a tough time,” DeLaGarza said. “Obviously we have the best doctors in the world so we just have our faith and trust in them.”