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Savage toddler waits on heart transplant following rare diagnosis

Bianca Gozola, born in October 2018, was a healthy baby; growing up just like her big sister, Fiona.

“She was actually a really, really, chunky baby,” her mother Laura Gozola said. “She ate all the time and was progressing and developing as a normal kid.”

But a purple hue — appearing and disappearing sometimes from Bianca’s lips, cheeks and hands — was the first clue of something wrong.

Additional tests were ordered following Bianca’s 15-month check-up.

“We were approaching it like, ‘check off the box, it’s probably nothing,’” Laura Gozola remembers.

On March 15, 2020 — just 48 hours into Minnesota’s first coronavirus lockdown — an echocardiogram showed Bianca had restrictive cardiomyopathy.

“They knew right away,” Laura Gozola said.

Restrictive cardiomyopathy is the rarest form of cardiomyopathy, according to Mayo Clinic. The condition most commonly effects older adults.

In patients with restrictive cardiomyopathy, the heart muscle becomes rigid and unable to properly expand between heartbeats. Other diseases can trigger the condition, but sometimes, and in Bianca’s case, it occurs with no known cause.

The lower chambers of Bianca’s heart had become too stiff to properly pump blood throughout her body. In the early stages of heart failure, Bianca became listed to receive a heart transplant.

For Nick Gozola, Bianca’s father, the devastating diagnosis set him down a familiar path.

His sister, Kristi, received a heart transplant in eighth grade after being born with several congenital heart defects. She passed away at 21-years-old.

“As a father it’s hitting me differently obviously than being a brother,” Nick Gozola said. “The first time, you thought it would be the only time.”

Bianca’s condition is about a one-in-a-million chance and completely unrelated to his sister’s heart conditions, he said.

For Nick, “lightening struck twice,” Laura said.

The news of Bianca’s diagnosis last year joined with another announcement — the Gozola’s were expecting a third child.

Laura was around two months pregnant when Bianca was diagnosed. At the same time, the coronavirus pandemic was bearing down and uprooting life both inside and outside of the hospital.

In a post to friends and family, Nick said their worst nightmare as parents had come true.

The Gozolas continue waiting for Bianca to receive a heart transplant.

Bianca’s 4-year-old sister, Fiona, will begin preschool this year and Devin, their son born in September, is now 6-months-old.

“Both our girls just absolutely love Devin — he’s the highlight of their life,” Laura Gozola said.

“I think it’ll be hard for them when Fiona starts preschool this fall because it’s the first time they won’t be together,” Laura Gozola said. “Right now they are together 24/7.”

The Gozolas said they’re thankful to see a typical sister bond between Fiona and Bianca despite their differences.

“Fiona is just the most thoughtful, caring, supportive, sweet, smart little girl,” Laura Gozola said.

Today, Nick models some of the parenting skills he observed in his own parents growing up.

“My parents did an extremely good job of making sure my sister Katie and I knew that we were important — that we were still a priority in their lives even though Kristi at times required more attention,” he said. “We really try to do that as best we can with Fiona and Devin.”

With both Nick and Laura working to support the family, Bianca attends daycare.

She continually receives medication through an intravenous line on her arm, which attaches to a backpack containing her medication.

“She’s just the sweetest little girl,” Laura Gozola said. “She loves playing hide-and-seek and chase, but she can’t run very fast.”

Support for the Gozola family

Donations are being collected through the Children’s Organ Transplant Association (COTA) to help cover Bianca’s medical expenses.

COTA supports transplant families at no-cost by ensuring 100% of the funds donated on behalf of each patient goes towards transplant-related expenses, according to the organization’s website.

Bianca may use the funds given in her name at any point in her lifetime. Through COTA, any funds remaining at the time of a patient’s death are transferred to another patient’s needs rather than given to the family.

To date, 156 contributors have donated approximately $35,000 to Bianca through the organization.

The Gozola’s are currently appealing a decision by their insurance provider to deny coverage of Bianca’s transplant at Children’s Minnesota.

During the past year, the Gozola’s have leaned on the support and friendship of their neighbors in the Eagle Creek neighborhood.

“They are probably the most kind and generous people that you’ll meet,” said neighbor Brittany Seaburg.

“It’s been such a blessing for us in so many different ways,” Nick Gozola said. “The kids all play so well together. I consider them family at this point.”


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Catalytic converter thefts rise in southwest metro

Joining areas across the nation, Scott and Carver counties are seeing a rise in reported catalytic converter thefts.

The converters, which can re-sell for hundreds of dollars once cut off a car’s underside, carry precious metals. It makes the devices, meant to control emission toxins, enticing to thieves, according to local law enforcement officials.

Though Scott County Sheriff Luke Hennen said the department rarely goes through a year without seeing catalytic converter thefts, he wouldn’t be surprised to see an increase over the past 12 months.

Hennen sees thefts along Highway 169 between Jordan and Shakopee, he said, especially at big box retailer parking lots.

Between March 2020 and March 2021, Savage saw 36 catalytic converter thefts. It’s more than three times what the Savage Police Department responded to in 2020 with 11 cases, Capt. Bruce Simon said.

“(In) June we started seeing an increase. That continued up until at least one just the other day,” Simon said.

In Prior Lake, the tale is similar. Chief Steve Frazer said in 2018, only two converters were reported stolen to the city’s police department. In 2020, there were nine.

“So far in 2021, we’ve had 6,” he said, noting that was just for the first three months of the year.

Across the Minnesota River in Carver County, the trend continues.

Officials reported 11 thefts in Chaska by mid-March of this year, Chaska Police Department Detective Sgt. Jamie Personius said.

In 2020, there were 30 stolen. In 2018 and 2019, converter thefts hovered between five and seven in the city. In a public post, the department confirmed the thefts are happening in communities across the metro.

WHY THE UPTICK?

Rare metal prices like platinum, found in converters, seem to be rising nationwide at scrap metal yards, Personius said. On top of that, the equipment usually doesn’t have a serial number. That can make them difficult to track if they’re stolen.

He said people can usually get anywhere from $50 to $400 when they scrap them. And if it’s a hybrid car?

“Hybrid vehicles have been targeted more often, such as like a Toyota Prius, because in those hybrids there’s apparently more precious metals so they’re getting upwards of $1,600,” Personius said.

In 2018, Shakopee resident Jenny McGee’s daughter’s first car had its converter stolen. They live at an apartment complex off Marschall Road, where the 1998 Honda Accord was parked.

It cost her family close to $600 to repair. Her advice to those hoping the same doesn’t happen to them?

“Park in a garage. There really is no way to hide. Mine was right in front of my house in broad daylight,” McGee said.

According to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, highly-targeted vehicles include the Prius, Honda Elements, and Mitsubishi Outlanders.

Hennen with Scott County said it’s not necessarily a difficult crime to commit — another incentive for these types of thefts.

“There’s an easy tradeoff for a few minutes of work,” Hennen said. “If you’re going to break into a house versus, you know, you can get a guaranteed $300 for doing this.”

Perhaps surprisingly, newer cars aren’t necessarily prone to catalytic converter thefts.

“We haven’t seen targeting (of) newer vehicles,” Personius said. “They obviously don’t want brand new. It’s gonna look shiny and new, and scrappers won’t take it.”

In March of this year, Chaska resident Amber Houterman’s converter was stolen in the middle of the night.

The stay-at-home mom didn’t know it had been sawed off until her mechanic informed her.

“I took it in because it sounded like a hot rod,” she said of the 2005 Hyundai Tucson.

Luckily, it didn’t put too much of a dent in her wallet.

“The cost could have been exponential but my amazing mechanic welded a pipe in place. Thank you, lack of emissions testing in Minnesota!” she said.

It’s not necessary for cars to have converters, but certain states require it for pollution standards.

HOW TO STOP IT

Local law enforcement officials say it starts with awareness.

Hennen said the department has extra patrols in parking lots, but in-between shifts thefts can still happen.

“The community is our best eyes and ears but if they aren’t aware of what to look for, they can’t do anything,” Hennen said.

If people see someone hanging around a car or other suspicious activity, they can call their local department or grab the license plate number.

People can also pay attention to where they leave their car, such as parking it in a more public or well-lit area or engrave their converters.

The Chaska Police Department is putting information like this on their social media channels. It’s also looking into starting a program with local auto service shops, Personius said, “to try and help curb the thefts.”

He said the BCA is also working on enacting legislation to curb purchasing on the back end.

“One person or one group of people doing this has a huge impact. They’re going out all night long trying to do this. It’s impactful when you catch somebody and you can stop it,” Hennen said. “They’re not just gonna drive around one neighborhood in Chaska or Shakopee. They’ll drive around four neighborhoods in one night.”


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