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Open Hearts

‘And just like that.. we’re done until documentary time.’

That’s the text I sent to KETV photojournalist Ashley Nodgaard Monday night after watching the final chapter in our 3-part series Operation: Open Hearts.  I gave you a little preview last month of our journey to La Paz, Mexico, where an Omaha medical team travels twice a year to save children’s lives, and to build a future for countless others.

Three beautiful girls, all born with congenital heart defects in a part of the world that offered them little hope.  Three children, now forever connected through the hearts of people giving of their time and talents, at no charge, to give them the chance at life.

Since we returned to Omaha 3 weeks ago, Ashley and I have been working nonstop on these stories, hoping to bring YOU to La Paz to see and hear what we did firsthand.

CLICK HERE to learn WHY Omaha’s Dr. Jim Hammel takes an entire team to La Paz twice a year.

CLICK HERE as the team begins their 7th mission, and meet the tiny patients they hope to save.

CLICK HERE to go inside the OR, and watch Omaha doctors TEACH as they SAVE children.

And CLICK HERE to watch as DOZENS of the children, saved over the years, return to tell their heroes THANK YOU.

We take so many things for granted in life.  In this particular case, that if our children are sick, they will be taken care of.  In larger terms, that you have a baby, take that baby home, and live happily ever after.

An estimated 1% of ALL babies are born with a congenital heart defect.

Alex O’Connor was one of them.


Photo courtesy Jenn Cady Photography

“When I was 5 months old I had a left Anomalous Coronary Artery repair,” Alex told me recently.  “Everyone has three arteries in their heart and one of mine was connected wrong.  Every time my heart would beat, I would have a mini heart attack.”

Alex also has a twin brother; Cam did not have heart problems.  Doctors told the O’Connors that their baby girl had a 50% chance of making it through surgery.

“I have beat all the odds,” said Alex, now a 20-year old college student at the University of Wyoming.  “I have no restrictions, I’m on no medications, I’m just as normal as can be.  My message is to not only raise awareness about congenital heart defects, which is the number one birth defect in America, but to also teach people how to love their scars and to never be ashamed of them.”

Alex, a Keystone, Nebraska native, found a way to amplify her message.


She was crowned Miss Fur Trade Days 2016, allowing her the opportunity to compete for the title of Miss Nebraska.  This will be Alex’s second trip to North Platte, first competing as Miss Northwest in 2014.

“This program has made me grow in a lot of different ways,” said Alex.  “It has allowed me to be the best version of myself that I can be.”

Alex O’Connor is a young woman who loves dancing and dogs, she’s obsessed with flamingos and coffee, and she’s a proud sister who enjoys going to rodeos to watch Cam compete.  She has also taken part in events across western Nebraska, from fairs to fundraisers to classroom visits.

No matter where she’s at, children are the people who always seem to gravitate to Alex, and vice versa.

These are the hearts Alex hopes to connect with, and to inspire with her message.

“My platform is Rock Your Scar: Congenital Heart Defect Awareness,” said Alex.  “Everyone has a scar whether it is physical or emotional and we should never be ashamed of them.  We should actually use them in a way to tell a story.”

Alex hopes to do that in every facet of her Miss Nebraska experience, even dedicating her talent performance to children facing the same battles she did.

courtesy Linda Teahon

Photo courtesy Linda Teahon

“My talent is a lyrical [dance] piece to ‘One Day You Will’ by Lady Antebellum,” said Alex.  “The reason why I chose this song was because being a Congenital Heart Defect survivor I have gone through a lot, and this dance is a tribute to the kids that have gone or are going through what I went through.  My message to them is one day you will make it through and you will realize that you are 1 in 100, and you should be proud to join the zipper club.”



This is Regina, the second patient Omaha’s team operated on in their latest trip to La Paz.  At 22-months, she had open heart surgery.  Within 24 hours, she was walking, standing, smiling and coloring.

These kids are TOUGH.  They are strong, and so are their families.. along with the passionate doctors, nurses and others who care for them.  Ironically, in a club all about fixing hearts, these people are ALL heart.

Alex O’Connor is ready to share HER heart with our entire state and beyond.


“Being Miss Nebraska is a privilege.  It’s a job and the right person has to be ready for what the job entails,” said Alex.  “I’m ready to use my talents, my knowledge and my courage to fulfill the job of Miss Nebraska.”

Stay tuned to KETV in June for our special report, Operation: Open Hearts


CLICK HERE to follow Miss Fur Trade Days 2016 Alex O’Connor on Facebook.


2014 * Survivor

For more information about the Miss Chadron/Miss Northwest/Miss Fur Trade Days Pageant, visit their FACEBOOK PAGE.  For information on becoming a contestant, contact Directors Caitlin Rodiek and Sara Smith by email at misscnwdirectors@gmail.com.  You can also contact Caitlin Rodiek by phone at 308-207-0336.


The 2016 Miss Nebraska Scholarship Pageant takes place June 8-11 in North Platte, Nebraska.  Learn more on THEIR WEBSITE, FACEBOOK PAGE, or follow ON TWITTER and ON INSTAGRAM.


PREVIOUS.. Miss Alliance’s Outstanding Teen 2016 Cherokee Purviance!

NEXT..  Miss Scotts Bluff County’s Outstanding Teen 2016 Carsyn Long!

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2015 & 2014, click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!


At 5 months of age, many babies are making their first attempts at real speech.  They are gearing up to start crawling, maybe learning how to sit on their own.  A baby’s grasp gets stronger and they start trying to grab things on their own.

At just 5 months old, this young lady was grasping for survival.

Impact Images Studio

Miss Northwest, Alex O’Connor

(Photo courtesy of Impact Images Studio)

“I had heart surgery to repair a left anomalous coronary.  It’s a congenital defect,” Alex told me earlier this week.  “I was in the ICU for two months at Denver Children’s Hospital.”

A quick search of the condition reveals some alarming phrases.  Very rare… sudden death as a complication.. heart attack in the baby.

In this case, a miracle.  Alex has grown into a beautiful young woman competing for Miss Nebraska as Miss Northwest.  She’s also using her title to share her story.

“My platform is ‘Be Heart Healthy’ because I am a heart survivor,” said Alex.  “My mission is to spread the word about how to have a healthy heart.”


Alex with Miss Chadron 2013 Meghan Thalken

Alex says that passion is one of the reasons people should care about the Miss Nebraska organization.

“It is not just a pageant,” said Alex.  “All the girls in this organization are truly wonderful and all we ever want is to make a positive difference in someone’s life.”

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Participating has also had an impact on Alex.  A senior at Paxton High School, she previously competed in Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen.

“Being in this system I have learned lifelong lessons that I will never forget,” said Alex.  “Just overall, I’m more confident and mature for my age.”


Alex says she loves performing in front of an audience, but her favorite part of Miss Nebraska is the Evening Gown portion.

“I love to dress up.  I mean, who doesn’t?” said Alex.  “I love showing who I am by being confident and graceful.”

As for Lifestyle and Fitness, or swimsuit, Alex says she sees both sides of the controversy, but believes it is a necessary aspect of the competition.

“We are competing for Miss Nebraska, maybe even Miss America, and the lucky lady who gets it needs to be in good shape so she can be ready for anything,” said Alex.


It is truly amazing how life can change and come full circle.  From a baby with a sick heart, to a young woman with a heart of gold.

“I want to be Miss Nebraska because it has always been a dream for me since I was little,” said Alex.  “For me, it’s not all about getting the crown, for me, it’s knowing that I have the chance to make a difference in someone’s life.”


Connect with Miss Northwest, Alex O’Connor

on Facebook


The Miss Nebraska pageant takes place June 5-7 in North Platte, Nebraska.  For more information, visit the Miss Nebraska website.


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