Fort Madison, Iowa


Zephan Abel has had more surgeries and procedures in his young life than most people have in a lifetime. Born with Alagille syndrome, a rare genetic disease that affected his heart and liver, doctors at University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital performed life-saving surgery to enlarge his pulmonary artery when he was just a day old. Since then, he has had almost a dozen heart catheterizations.

Because Zephan’s mother, Richar, has the same genetic disease, her pregnancy was considered high risk, and her doctors were able to diagnose his heart defect before he was born.

“I don’t know if we would have Zephan with us if it weren’t for UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital,” Richar says.

His father, Matthew, says simply, “We owe our son’s life to UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital.”

Zephan has endured numerous medical challenges. When he was 19 months old, his appendix ruptured. When he was 20 months old, he was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Alagille syndrome also affected Zephan’s liver, which caused xanthomas, or areas of uncomfortable build-up of cholesterol under the skin. As if these weren’t enough, he’s also been followed for problems with his eyes, ears, kidneys, and teeth.

It’s been a long haul for the Abel family. In spite of it all, Zephan enjoys his visits to Iowa City.

“I like going to the hospital,” Zephan says, adding that he gets to play with toys before the medical team examines him. “I like the people there. They make me feel right at home.”

Adds Matthew, “It’s really the only place to go. Whatever Zephan needs, there’ll be a doctor there who knows what to do for him.”

Thanks to UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital, Zephan’s parents can see what they hope will be a long and happy future for their son.

“I think that all of what he’s gone through will make him a better man,” says Matthew.

“I hope they are able to keep fixing his heart so we can see him play sports, so that he can lead a normal life,” Richar adds.

Zephan, meanwhile, just keeps beating the odds. He’s an active little boy who loves rodeos, music, and playing with his sister, Xandra in their back yard. Ask Zephan what he wants to be, though, and he’ll tell you, “A paleontologist. My favorite dinosaur is the T Rex. That stands for tyrannosaurus rex.”

As he grows, Zephan will require additional surgeries to repair his heart. But based on the care he’s received, and the giant strides he’s made Matthew and Richar are optimistic.

After all, as his mother notes, “The UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital saved my son. I can’t thank them enough. This is the best hospital in Iowa.”

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