Volunteer week: Roundup River Ranch volunteer back after 2 heart transplants

Vail Valley native Jennifer Ortiz is volunteering again this summer at Roundup RIver Ranch, after recovering from her second heart transplant. The successful surgery was done at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.
Roundup River Ranch|Special to the Daily |

About Roundup River Ranch

Roundup River Ranch provides free year-round programs and camp experiences to children ages 17 and younger with serious illnesses and their families. At the ranch, which is located 50 miles west of Vail, a camper can take a vacation from being a “patient” and get back to being a child.

Local philanthropist Alison Knapp founded Roundup River Ranch in 2006. Knapp took Paul Newman’s vision and dream of bringing a Hole in the Wall Camp (now SeriousFun Children’s Network) to Colorado.

Roundup River Ranch is affiliated with Children’s Hospital Colorado and other highly regarded medical facilities across the Rocky Mountain region. Learn more about the ranch — and supporting it — at or by calling 970-748-9983.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series profiling local volunteers in honor of National Volunteer Week, which runs through Saturday.

Jennifer Ortiz has the heart of a volunteer. In fact, she has had two.

Ortiz spent her winter in Los Angeles, relaxing and recovering from her second heart transplant. She’ll be back in the Vail Valley by summer so she can volunteer at Roundup River Ranch.

“I’m really good,” Ortiz said, which could mean something different for her than it does for most members of the Body Politic.

It turns out, she really is good.

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“My doctors did not think I would recover this fast,” she said.

‘Not the only one going through it’

Ortiz was a Roundup River Ranch camper the first two years the camp was open — she and her formerly failing heart. Before Roundup River Ranch opened, she did its On the Road program, spending some time at Victory Junction in North Carolina.

Now that she’s a Roundup River Ranch volunteer, she’s right among her people.

“I love meeting the kids. They’re going through so much, as well,” Ortiz said. “Because I went through something similar, they know they’re not the only ones going through it.”

This is her fourth year as a volunteer, her sixth if you count her years as a camper, which should count.

“Something I have in common with all of these kids, even though we do have different medical conditions, is that we all are tough,” Ortiz said.

Roundup River Ranch is a summer camp for kids with serious and life-threatening illnesses. Such as Ortiz’s.

“When Jennifer left Roundup River Ranch for the final time as a camper, she told me that she would be back to volunteer. She wanted to give back to the place that had given her so much,” said Ruth Johnson, camp CEO. “Two years later, Jennifer came back as a volunteer and Roundup River Ranch has been better ever since.”

Ortiz understands children with serious illnesses, and relates to them in a special way, inspires them, and truly connects, Johnson said.

“Roundup River Ranch is fortunate that Jenn, and hundreds of other volunteers like her, donate their time and talents to support camp,” Johnson said.

Heart of hearts

Ortiz had her first heart transplant when she was in sixth grade. A viral infection set about destroying the heart she was born with.

In all of those nine years, her heart was never at home. Her body has tried repeatedly to reject it, landing her in the hospital. In November, her kidneys shut down because her heart wasn’t working properly.

She was born with a tiny birth defect that prevented the left side of the heart from pumping enough blood. The body, in all of its adaptive resilience, made the right side of her heart grow twice as strong, enough to pump blood for both sides.

Her second was a heart and kidney transplant last winter at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, under the watchful eye of some of the world’s best surgeons. The three doctors on her cardiology team say her new heart is “perfect.”

Ortiz graduated from Battle Mountain High School in 2013.

She started college at the University of Colorado, studying bioengineering. She switched to nursing, because she wants to take care of people.

She has the heart for it.

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