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A Family Transforms Tragedy into Hope for the Future

Date: 04/05/2016

A Family Transforms Tragedy into Hope for the Future

PJ, right, plays around with his siblings Chelsea, center, and Bryan.

There was no reason for Vivian and Paul Schafer to think that their son PJ had coronary artery disease. A sophomore at the Community College of Baltimore County in Catonsville, Maryland, 20-year-old PJ was captain of the men’s lacrosse team, loved spending time outdoors with family and friends, and completed a 12-day, 80-mile hike at the Boy Scouts’ Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico as an Eagle Scout.

Watching one of his son’s lacrosse games on March 23, 2003, Paul knew something was wrong. A few minutes into the fourth period, PJ came out of the game complaining of chest discomfort, and put ice on his shoulder and chest. By the time Paul reached him, PJ was lying motionless on his side and could not be revived by CPR. Tragically, he died from a sudden cardiac event.

“He was a healthy, college-level athlete in great shape,” Paul says. “Nobody would have ever guessed he had something like this.”

“It was just a total, total shock,” adds Vivian.

Searching for a meaningful way to memorialize their son, the Schafers started an annual charity golf tournament, dinner and silent auction to raise money for scholarships in PJ’s name for students at his high school and college alma maters. But after a couple of years, they wanted to do more. One of their physicians, Johns Hopkins preventive cardiologist Wendy Post, suggested funding research projects for young faculty members studying how to prevent sudden cardiac death and premature heart disease. The Schafers loved the idea.

Over the past 10 years, the Schafers have raised over $285,000 for heart disease research at the Johns Hopkins Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease through the PJ Schafer Cardiovascular Research Fund. It’s been a family affair, with help from PJ’s siblings Chelsea, a trauma nurse, and Bryan, a real estate agent. Paul’s mother, Louise Schafer, PJ’s cousin, Scott Musser, and PJ’s best friend, Matt Hook, also lend a hand.

“We have been blessed to have a large group of dedicated volunteers and friends that help make our event a huge success. Many have been with us from the start,” says Vivian, who works in food service for Howard County Public Schools.

The fund has supported at least 10 faculty members, including Chiadi Ndumele, for a project to better understand the link between obesity and heart disease; Erin Michos, for looking at vitamin D deficiency as a risk factor for heart disease and the early signs of heart disease in women; Saman Nazarian, for a project using endoscopy to visualize the outside surface of the heart during procedures in the treatment of ventricular arrhythmias; and Seth Martin and Bill McEvoy, for work on the detection of undiagnosed coronary artery disease. 

“We’re very pleased with the results so far,” says Paul, a project manager for a consulting company. “We honestly believe that in the past 10 years, they have made some inroads into identifying potential risk factors for heart disease.”

Support from the family “has been extraordinarily helpful,” says Post, noting that researchers can take results from the pilot studies to support requests for larger federal research grants. “It’s been a win-win for everybody. The Schafers work really hard on the tournament to raise this money, and we’re incredibly grateful for their support. This is a wonderful tribute to PJ’s memory.”

The 13th annual PJ Schafer Memorial Golf Tournament will be held June 23 at the Compass Pointe Golf Club in Pasadena, Maryland. For more information, see pjschafer.com.

“It’s been a win-win for everybody. The Schafers work really hard on the tournament to raise this money, and we’re incredibly grateful for their support. This is a wonderful tribute to PJ’s memory.”

- Wendy Post

A Family Transforms Tragedy into Hope for the Future