Three heart surgeries, twenty years, and some 1,300 miles. That is the unbelievable story of one dedicated Garth Brooks fan determined to see her idol a second time. When Heather Zigler was 9-years old, she sat across from Brooks and Trisha Yearwood backstage in Billings, Montana. That was thanks to the dedication of her parents and Make-A-Wish. Two decades later, her family brought her home for another Brooks show. And the story of Heather’s life and the impact of Garth Brooks on it is an incredibly inspiring tale.
A Troubled Start
According to the Billings Gazette, it was a sequence of small miracles that put Heather Zigler in the same room as Garth Brooks. And just as many miracles for her to return to his audience twenty years later.
Her story began with a troubled start. Heather was born with “truncus arteriosus, a rare defect in the vessels of the heart. The condition occurs when the two main vessels that carry blood out of the heart — the pulmonary artery, which carries blood to the lungs and the aorta, which carries blood to the body — grow together, forming one vessel. It often leaves a gap in the wall between the bottom two chambers of the heart.”
Surgery is required to treat the condition. And it isn’t a minor procedure. Doctors have to create a new, second vessel, as well as repair the two valves and the wall between the heart’s two lower chambers. In Heather’s case, the surgery couldn’t be completed in one operation. Instead, it took two. And they occurred five years apart.
Her first operation occurred when she was just a week old. For that one, the surgeons created the pulmonary artery and also repaired the gap between the two bottom heart chambers. But the odds were against her. The lead physician told her parents, Cathy and Pat, that she only had a 10 percent chance of surviving.
But Heather did survive.
It was a miracle Heather survived her first surgery. However, she wasn’t out of the woods. She still needed a second surgery. That one occured in the autumn of 1998. Heather was 9 then. In that operation, they were able to repair the two valves. This one was a complete success, and changed Heather’s life.
Following her second operation, Heather was able to engage in activities she never had before. Sports were too risky, but she did get involved 4-H. She cared for her own horse, and also raised pigs. Her parents said that Heather worked just hard as any of the other kids. As her father put it, “She’s so damned stubborn it couldn’t have been any other way.”
But unfortunately, things dramatically changed for the worse when Heather turned 14. The aortic valve the surgeons created five years earlier calcified and no longer worked properly. This meant another open-heart surgery, her third in her short life. Heather went to Denver for this one.
Once again, things did not go as planned.
“It was horrendous,” Heather’s mother, Cathy, said. “We don’t have pictures from that one.” The surgery was supposed to last six hours. It took 14. And there were complications the doctors had not anticipated. When Heather left surgery and went to recovery, she would not wake.
“It was horrible,” Cathy said.
Heather was in a coma for a week. Of course, her family was completely terrified the whole time. They didn’t know if she would come out of the coma. And if she did, there was the chance Heather would have neurological damage, which could also mean personality changes. But Heather’s spirit came through once again. She made an incredible recovery, which was particularly miraculous considering her doctors now think she experienced a small stroke during that 14-hour procedure.
And so, barely into her adolescence, Heather was once again fighting a difficult battle. Despite her amazing recovery, her health was not solid. She collapsed while playing a game at a friend’s house just a year later. To be on the safe side, she returned to Denver for more tests. At just 15 years old, she had to have a defibrillator implanted. This was because a stress test determined her heart was at risk to stop beating. The defibrillator helped regulate her heartbeat, and could shock it back to life should it slow or stop.
Since that time, her health improved steadily.
Heather Zigler now resides in Illinois with her husband and their baby. Her family still reside in Montana. And they were determined to have her return to Montana to coincide with Garth Brooks‘ return. This is because of the incredible intersections between Heather’s life and Brooks.
A Longtime Fan
Growing up on a farm in Ignomar, Montana meant long drives to most places. Especially for Heather, because of the incredible amount of medical care she needed. Heather and her parents had to drive 26 miles to Billings for her doctor’s appointments, as well as often fly to Denver. “Everywhere you went was a really long way,” said Heather’s mother, Cathy Murnion.
Heather is a long-time Garth Brooks fan. During those drives or flights, it was his music she played. You could almost call Garth Brooks the soundtrack to Heather’s childhood. One song in particular really stands out, “The River.” “It is my favorite song,” Heather explained. “I’ve been singing it since I was 3 years old.”
It makes sense. That song is about coming to peace with life, regardless of the future. And so, given her love of Garth Brooks and his impact on her life, there was no way her parents could miss the opportunity to take her to see him when he came to Billings in 1998. That was when Heather was 9. That first concert occurred just months before her second heart surgery. And it wasn’t certain that it was going to happen.
Make-A-Wish Steps In
It isn’t easy to get Garth Brooks concert tickets at any time. His shows consistently sell out–very quickly. But it was especially difficult for Heather’s parents. At that time, you had to stand in line for wristbands one day. The wristbands allowed you to save a place in line for when tickets actually went on sale. However, you still had to stand in line that second time to purchase the tickets. Heather’s mom made both trips from their farm to get the wristband and then the tickets. Each was nearly a three-hour drive.
Despite Cathy’s best efforts, she was only able to purchase two. And they weren’t even next to each other. Each was a single seat near the back of the arena. Then Cathy had an idea. She decided to contact Make-A-Wsh to see if they could help, knowing that Brooks is quite supportive of that charity.
When Cathy reached out to Make-A-Wish, it was uncertain if things would work out. They didn’t have an office in Montana at that time. However, they finally put her in touch with their California office And so another miracle occurred. The California Make-A-Wish stepped in and granted a wish beyond what Cathy requested. They got her two tickets in the first few rows. And they gave her backstage passes for Heather to meet Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood. On top of that, Cathy kept the original tickets she purchased. This allowed Heather’s dad and Heather’s younger sister, Ally, to also attend the show.
Heather Meets Garth Brooks
Cathy recalled how special it was when Heather met Garth Brooks. She went with her daughter backstage. Together, the waited outside his dressing room and then he appeared. She remembers him wearing a T-shirt and baseball hat. Trisha Yearwood joined shortly after. Brooks instantly interacted with his young fan. “He got right on her level and talked to her right away,” Cathy said.
Heather was shy and reserved at first. But then she warmed up. Her mom said she “became like a magpie. She just talked and talked and talked.” Heather brought small gifts, stick horses, for Brooks’ daughters. He gave her her four tee shirts, a tour book, and several videos. Then he and his wife autographed pictures for her. “She was just amazed,” Cathy recalled. “An ear-to-ear grin.”
To top it off, Brooks acknowledged his fan from the stage. “Hi, Heather!” he shouted to her halfway through the show. That was one of the mot incredible moment’s of Heather’s life. And so when Garth Brooks announced last year that he was retuning to Montana, Heather’s family knew it was a great time for her to return home.
The distance between Heather and her family is difficult for all of them. So Heather was not surprised when she got the call from her sister telling her that they had Garth Brooks tickets for his next Billings show. Despite Heather having another outpatient procedure on her heart just a week before the show, her family was determined for her to come to he show. “Twenty years ago we didn’t know if she was gonna be here 20 years later,” said Heather’s sister Ally Murnion. She continued, “She’s ready to come home and be with family.”
And of course, Ally was also aware of how amazing seeing Brooks again would be for Heather. “Just having her see him in person again,” Ally said. “I’m sure she’s going to cry through the whole concert.”
Garth Brooks Gives to Charity
Last year, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood finished their three-year tour, which included the Billings, MT show. What is next on his agenda is not certain. He is slated for a few dates in 2018, including RodeoHouston and the Stagecoach Music Festival in California. But nothing is scheduled beyond that, at least as far as his fans know. Trisha Yearwood has also discussed taking time to return to the studio for her own work now that the tour wrapped up.
But whatever comes of his music career, Garth Brooks will certainly still be involved in charity work. He and Yearwood have a long philanthropic history, including supporting such charities as Teammates for Kids, as well as Make-A-Wish. He has also put on numerous shows to help victims of natural disasters. And Trisha Yearwood actually received an award from former President Jimmy Carter to honor her humanitarian work with Habitat for Humanity, among others.
What is so incredible about Heather’s story is how much it unifies the elements of what country music is about.
The indomintable human spirit and the deep and abiding love of family. The ability of music to inspire, and the ability of an artist to deeply care. Ultimately, the intersections of Heather’s life with the career of Garth Brooks profoundly illustrates why country isn’t just music–it is community.
And it is a community that not only Garth Brooks celebrates, but other other country music artists, as well. Consider how the country community came together after the horrifying events of the Route 91 Harvest Festival. How many benefit concerts artists performed after Hurricanes Harvey and Imra. And the countless number of charities they individually support. And the consider the amazing support that each fan gives to his or her favorite artist. There is so much to celebrate in that. And celebrate we will.
If you have an incredible or inspiring country music story, let us know in the comments. We would love to read about it and let others know how country music has impacted your life.