Next week 9-year-old Ben Doig will be at a camp near Auckland, rock climbing, kayaking, shooting with a bow and arrow, and tackling obstacle courses.

There'll be a team of doctors and nurses on standby, and throughout the day children will be pulled aside to take their medication.

That's because this camp is run especially for children who battle every day with congenital heart defects.

It wouldn't be obvious looking at Wellington boy Ben that he has a heart condition, but as soon as he starts kicking a soccer ball around his backyard it's evident from his wheezing breaths.


Ben has hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a birth defect that affects the way blood flows through the heart. The left side of his heart did not form correctly during pregnancy, meaning he's had to have three surgeries to "replumb" it all, mum Inge Doig said.

Ben is often climbing trees and getting into scrapes despite his heart defect. Photo / Supplied
Ben is often climbing trees and getting into scrapes despite his heart defect. Photo / Supplied

The first surgery was when Ben was just eight days old, the second around six months, and the third near the age of four.

He also has problems with his vocal chords as a result of the open-heart surgery, which contributes to the wheezing.

It sounds serious, but Ben's health issues don't stop him from pursuing life to the fullest, Doig said her son was often getting into scrapes at school.

The Karori boy plays soccer, cricket, and does karate, but contact sports such as rugby are out of bounds because his daily blood thinning medication means he's more susceptible to a brain bleed.

So a special camp for kids like Ben to go to for adventurous but carefully-handled activities is a great opportunity for him and his family.

Camp Braveheart is run by Heart Kids, an organisation that supports families of children with heart conditions.

Camp Braveheart caters for about 100 kids who struggle throughout the year to live a normal life and keep up with their friends, and gives them a chance to get together, do fun activities, share their problems, and build friendships with others.

Making friends is Ben's favourite part of the camp, which he also went to last year.

He befriended a Dunedin boy with the same heart condition as him, and can't wait to see him again at next week's camp.

Ben will be able to attend school camps now that he's in Year 5, but it's unlikely his parents would send him away on a school camp without one of them being able to take time off work and go along as a parent volunteer.

Camp Braveheart, on the other hand, is a safe environment where each child's condition is carefully managed and parents don't have to worry.

Ben's mum Inge Doig says the services Heart Kids provides are invaluable.

When Ben was born, Heart Kids was there to provide support to his stressed parents. Since then, the organisation has also provided a portable machine they can use at home to test his blood, something he'd normally have to go to a doctor for regularly.

"For me, Heart Kids itself, it's been a sort of an invaluable support network for the adults, especially when children are younger," Inge said.

It was also a "real comfort" to Inge knowing that Ben was building lifelong friendships at camp, with people who understood his challenges.

Congenital heart defects in Kiwi kids

• One in 100 babies born in New Zealand have congenital heart defects (CHDs)

• There are over 40 different types of defect

• More than 550 major heart surgeries carried out on Kiwi kids each year

• 12 babies are born in New Zealand each week with a childhood heart condition