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Heller gives back to racing community after being hospitalized
Brady Heller
Cuba City racer Wes Digman poses with his neighbor and racing fan, Brady Heller, who recently donated $400 to the Dubuque Fairgrounds Speedway to purchase a new score board. - photo by Dena Harris

CUBA CITY—A simple outing with his father had Brady Heller hooked on racing from the first turn around the tracks. In the last couple of years, the 6-year-old from Cuba City has become an avid fan.

When a surgery this summer prevented Brady from watching his favorite racers, they showed their support for him instead by dropping off gifts and visiting him in the hospital in Madison. To show his appreciation, Brady later held a fundraiser to give back to the racing community.

When he was 3 years old, Brady was diagnosed with Vascular Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a rare genetic connective tissue disorder that is caused by a defect in the protein called collagen.

“He doesn’t have connective tissue throughout his body to hold stuff together,” his mother Kristal Heller summarized. “We hadn’t really had any major problems until this summer. He had some belly pain which turned out to be a perforated bowel.”

Brady has had a total of 13 operations where he’s needed staples or stitches.

“It’s something he’ll have to live with the rest of his life,” Kristal Heller said. “As a youth, the symptoms aren’t as bad. It’s a progressive disease and will get worse as he gets older. He’s young, though. Maybe they’ll come up with something that will help him.”

Brady was taken to the hospital on July 31. After CAT scan results showed his bowel had ripped, he was sent to Madison for emergency surgery. He was there until Aug. 11.

“The day after his surgery, people from the community were there to support Brady,” Kristal Heller said. “The daycare sent cards and letters. People visited every day. His favorite racer, Wes Digman, brought him stickers. He even had his teacher and a classmate from the first grade at St. Rose visit. His hospital room was filled with toys. People even brought coolers of food.”

Kristal Heller said Brady really enjoyed the day the dogs visited his hospital room. He was asked during his stay to set three goals for when he was released from the hospital. His mother said he chose baseball, fishing and racing.

His first weekend back home, he attended the races in Dubuque.

“Wes [Digman] came and gave Brady a gift bag of stuff from all of the racers,” Kristal Heller said. “They even had a helmet autographed by the racers and coupons for the races for next year.”

Kristal Heller said she has been impressed with Digman’s friendship with Brady. He even gave Brady a photo of his car, No. 42, with a personal message and a note, “Stay strong,” written on the back.

“When he was in the hospital, Darlington [Lafayette County Speedway] held its back to school night where kids can win a backpack,” Kristal Heller said. “He was devastated. The racers surprised him, though. They got him one and everything had the Lightning McQueen racing theme.”

After school started, Brady decided he wanted to do a bake sale and lemonade stand to raise money for a new score board at the Dubuque Fairgrounds Speedway. They were $2,000 away from their goal.

“His classmates and friends made baked goods and he set up in Steve’s Pizza’s parking lot,” Kristal Heller said. “He made $400.”

At the end of September, Brady donated his money in person. His mother said he met with the fairgrounds board to present the money and they took him in a Gator to the pits for a tour.

“He had only been in the stands before, so it was his first time in the pit,” Kristal Heller said.

Brady was also shown the trophy room before the announcer took him in front of the crowd to ask him about the donation. Brady was also asked to come back for the first race of the season to plug in the new score board.

“He’s helping our sport out more than him or his family can understand,” Digman said. “Seeing young kids interested in racing gives us hope. The racing community wishes we could do more to give back.”

Hooked on Racing

“He fell in love with racing from the first time we took him,” his father, Ben Heller, said. “He liked the speed, the sound, the action. It was all very exciting for him.”

At a meet and greet event in Darlington, Brady was able to go out onto the track to meet some of the racers. That was the first time he met Digman. Kristal Heller knew Digman’s mother, Holly, through a volunteer event.

“Wes had a shirt for Brady and they took a picture together,” Ben Heller said. “Brady has been his biggest fan ever since.”

The Heller family attends many races each season. Fridays are spent in Darlington and Sundays in Dubuque. They have also been to some races in Lancaster.

“The kids have made shirts and bracelets to support Wes at the races,” Kristal Heller said.

Brady’s chances of racing are pretty slim as rough contact can cause serious injuries because of his disorder. He can’t play most sports either. This was his last summer of youth soccer because his age group will be allowed to be more aggressive next year.

“We take a lot of things for granted,” Digman said. “Seeing him in the hospital made me look at life differently. No 6-year-old should have to go through that knowing he won’t be able to play football or baseball. He has a lot of other things he’s interested in. It hasn’t slowed him down.”

Kristal Heller has been consulting with doctors from across the country to determine if a reversal surgery is possible for Brady’s perforated bowel, which has left him with a catheter and bag that has to be emptied regularly. Because of his collagen deficiency and his young age, he’s a high-risk patient. A special surgeon in Seattle said the survival rate from that procedure was extremely low.

“He understands what is going on,” Kristal Heller said. “He knows the parts of the body and uses proper terminology.”

Brady has foods he needs to avoid because they’re harder to digest and will have to take stool softener and vitamin C for the rest of his life to stay healthy.

“He’s always so happy, you wouldn’t know anything was wrong,” Kristal Heller said.

“The poor little guy seems to be tough as nails for being 6 years old and going through all of that,” Digman said. “You never think something would happen to someone you’re close to. In this case, he’s two blocks away.”

Kristal Heller said when her kids hear Digman start up his race car, they go running down the street.

Digman races the IMCA Sport Mod division two to three nights each week during the summer, traveling to Farley, Dubuque and Darlington. This upcoming season will be his 10th season racing.

“I really want to thank Brady and his entire family for their support the past couple of years. They’re a great family,” Digman said.