Kid Captain Ayden Gendreau takes Duke Slater Field months before back surgery

After more than one surgery per year of his life and one in December, 13-year-old Ayden Gendreau will take the field this Saturday with the Hawkeyes.


Jerod Ringwald

Iowa kid captain Ayden Gendreau and family speak with head coach Kirk Ferentz during “Kid’s Day at Kinnick” inside Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 14. (Jerod Ringwald/The Daily Iowan)

Eleanor Hildebrandt, News Editor

Patsy Gendreau considers her family lucky. 

After her son, Ayden, was diagnosed with VACTERL syndrome days after his birth, she said it’s fortunate the syndrome only affects a few body systems instead of all seven the disorder can. 

“With him, it was three, thank goodness, with vertebral, cardiology, and anal,” she said. “So we kind of lucked out, and you can’t tell by looking at him. A lot of people don’t even know his storyline when they meet him unless they see the scars on his chest and back.” 

Ayden Gendreau will take Duke Slater Field with the Hawkeye football team on Saturday alongside his mom, 10-year-old sister Michaela, uncle, and one of his friends as this season’s seventh Kid Captain. 

While he’s excited for the event, Ayden said he’s also anxious to be at Kinnick for the second time ever.

“I’m nervous about it,” he said. “It’s a lot of people. We watch the games when we can, and it’s a big stadium.”

Ayden turned 13 on Oct. 2 and plans to celebrate while he’s in Iowa City over the weekend. 

“It’s pretty hard to top,” Patsy said. 

Then he’ll return home to Camanche, Iowa, before making the hour-and-a-half trek back in December for an additional appointment.

“We usually have [Ayden’s] cardiology appointment once a year,” she said. “We go back to the hospital for his back a few times a year, and he’ll be having surgery for that in December.”

This will be Ayden’s 15th surgery at the UI Stead Family Children’s hospital, and he said he’s nervous because this procedure will look a little different than usual.

COVID-19 has impacted the Gendreau family, Patsy said, especially with Ayden’s surgery in two months. Patsy said the biggest difference between this surgery and the other 14 he’s had is that Patsy will be in the hospital alone this year. 

“Michaela would usually go with us, but there’s only one person per patient now,” she said. “With this upcoming surgery, I may be the only person who’s there, rather than having the rest of my family there to support me afterwards. We’ll feel the impact [of COVID-19] more in those instances.”

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Ayden’s first trip to the children’s hospital was within 24 hours of his birth when doctors discovered a heart defect. Patsy said he’ll have at least one appointment in Iowa City every year for the next few years.

Now, the 13-year-old likes to watch football when he can catch the games, but he prefers to watch and play baseball — he’s a Chicago Cubs fan.  

“I play third [base] and right field,” he said. “… I want to [play baseball] so I can be active and not lazy, but I don’t feel like doing it as I get older.”

When it comes to sports, Ayden has to be cautious of his syndrome. Patsy said he cannot play football or dodgeball due to heart concerns and he won’t be able to lift weight as he gets older, either.

Ayden said his favorite subject in school is math, and he enjoys playing video games. He wants to pursue a career in that field when he grows up. 

As he finishes middle school in the next few years and moves on to high school, Patsy said doctors will continue to monitor Ayden’s heart more than anything.

“He’ll eventually do a stress test in the next couple of years, and the older he gets the more limited he’ll be, just to make sure he’s not pushing himself too hard,” Patsy said. “When you’re young, you’ll quit when you’re tired, but the older you get the more competitive you are so you tend to push the limits. We’ll probably start to restrict him more.” 

As for his back, permanent rods will be put in soon, Patsy said. Seven years ago, Ayden had MAGEC rods put in his back to ensure his spine was able to grow with the rest of his body. MAGEC rods are a spinal growing rod that controls the body’s ability to lengthen magnetically.

VACTERL syndrome can also impact the esophagus, the windpipe, the kidneys, and the bone structures of the arms and legs.

As the Gendreau’s prepare for the Big Ten match over the weekend, Patsy said her family received a letter from Ayden’s orthopedic surgeon, congratulating him on being selected as a Kid Captain. 

She said she’s had a great experience with the doctors at Stead and with her son being a Kid Captain. She said she’s glad the program was delayed through 2020 so this year’s Kid Captains could enjoy the game with fans. 

“It’s an amazing experience for the kids,” Patsy said. “It’s nice that the hospital does it because the kids have been through so much. Even though they might not like all the attention, they’ve been through a lot and they deserve it. I hope they just relax and soak it all in and just enjoy it happening. A game about them, because they deserve it.”