Today is Sunday, August 20, 2017

MJ4Hope helps ease burden of crises for MJHS alumni

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Few people would describe a leg injury sustained in a car accident as a blessing, but that's what Bobby Pennington frequently declares.

The 52-year-old's leg was severely injured as a result of the accident, requiring several operations. During those procedures, blood work revealed something even worse.

"The whole thing was a blessing," Pennington said at Windtree Golf Course on Saturday. "The doctor caught this."

"This" is nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), also known as fatty liver disease. It is typically a silent disease and, if not for the car accident and subsequent blood tests, things would not be in Pennington's favor. In fact, the situation could be much worse.

He's now on the liver transplant list at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. While he waits and prays for a second chance at a healthy life, the medical bills have added up like snowflakes in a blizzard.

And while Pennington wasn't up to hitting the links at Windtree on Saturday, hundreds of others were. They all golfed for Pennington as part of an effort to help knock a dent in the mountain of medical bills.

It was all thanks to MJ4Hope, an initiative born three years ago when a group of Mt. Juliet High School alumni came together to help fellow graduates who needed assistance in the face of medical crises. Saturday's MJ4Hope golf tournament, along with a silent auction and dinner, raised more than $10,000 for Pennington.

He was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support, which saw 27 teams take part in Saturday's tournament.

"God had a plan," he said. "When I look at all these good people golfing for me ... it's family, friends and faith that get us through."

Pennington described himself as a reformed worry wart that no longer sweats the small stuff.

Neither does Amy Breedlove, who organized Saturday's golf tournament.

Breedlove's own personal journey inspired her to start MJ4Hope along with fellow MJHS Class of 1989 grads Ron Jackson and Derrick Meadows. Breedlove suffered a harrowing medical crisis of her own, and while her close call came with tons of medical bills, she said she was fortunate to have family and friends to help.

"But I realized immediately so many people are hit with something one day, and everything is changed," she said quietly. "Along with the bills."

In April 2014, Breedlove, an avid runner, went for a run and followed it up with a basketball coaching session. Later that night, she began to have severe chest pains. Doctors ultimately found a four-centimeter spot on her lung, the result of a foreign-born parasite.

"It was crazy," she recalled. "I've never been out of the country."

The incident would see doctors remove a portion of her lung in hopes she would one day run again after her healthy lung compensated for the loss. Today, she is healthy and running with a new sense of empathy for fellow MJHS alumni also caught in a storm of medical crises.

Over the past three years, MJ4Hope has raised more than $50,000 through golf tournaments and basketball games. A third fund-raising event is set to debut on Oct. 28 in the form of a 5K run. Breedlove's good friend, Christi Burgess, benefited from MJ4Hope and still struggles with a virus. Likewise, MJHS alumna Leslie Bingham, a breast cancer survivor, appreciated support from the organization.

"And now we've switched to add not just medical crisis need, but crisis in general," Breedlove explained.

One alumna, Wendy Rocchietti, lost her house in the recent Gatlinburg fires. She too received much-needed help from MJ4Hope.

"Mt. Juliet is such an awesome and generous community," Breedlove noted. "I never have to beg anyone for sponsors or donations in our events. On Saturday when we gave out team awards, I looked out across the sea of faces. I knew most of them. I have a story for all of them."

Mid-way through his own story, Pennington is calm and matter-of-fact.

"When you feel your mortality, things change," he said, looking out over the golf course. "If I get better, it's a great story. If not, I'll be promoted to heaven."

Along with his community, Pennington's wife Becky, whom he met in the sixth grade, and daughter Savannah are at his side.

Doctors say his numbers look good, and he's a great candidate for a liver transplant.

To learn more about MJ4Hope, visit MJ4Hope.org.

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