The inspiration behind local specialty coffee brand, Portola Coffee Roasters, is rooted in parents’ love for their child.
Christa Duggan never planned to become the owner of a well-respected, specialty coffeehouse brand.
But when her son, Gabe, was born almost 12 years ago, everything changed as she and her husband, Jeff, learned he had a heart defect. They didn’t find out until she went into labor.
“We were like, ‘Oh my goodness, what are we going to do?’” says Duggan. “‘How are we going to support our family? How are we going to support our son that has a lot of medical challenges.’”
Doctors told the couple that Gabe would have to undergo at least three open heart surgeries for his condition, which is known as hypoplastic right ventricle—meaning the right ventricle did not form properly.
“It’s kind of like having half of your heart functioning well,” she says.
But the bad news didn’t end there. Because Gabe was so sick, he spent the first year of his life in and out of the hospital. Duggan lost her job working at a venture capital firm.
“I lost my job because I had to take care of my son,” she says. “I was bringing in half the income.”
Plus, they had just bought a home and the country was in the midst of the housing crisis.
Spending most of their time at the hospital, the couple started to brainstorm. They had an idea. Jeff, who had a government job at the time, had been a hobbyist coffee roaster for years. Considering the lack of specialty roasters and coffeehouses in Orange County at the time, what if they started one? Something along the lines of the Seattle coffee shops.
“We felt like there was a void in Orange County to be filled,” she says.
So the idea of Portola Coffee Roasters was born. They partnered with Layer Cake Bakery in Irvine to help jumpstart the brand, and did well. They started building a following.
“We also were doing the farmers’ market in SOCO because we didn’t even have a physical location,” she says. “So we were hustling it.”
When they heard about The OC Mix opening in Costa Mesa, they reached out to the owners about having a shop there.
“They decided to give us a shot … and then the rest is history,” she says. “We never thought in a million years that we would have owned a coffee company.”
With Gabe’s medical condition, the coffee business has allowed them flexibility to participate in all the doctors’ visits and therapeutic care he needs.
Gabe’s first surgery happened when he was just 3 days old.
“He had a lot of complications during that time,” she says. “He was on kidney dialysis, he was very sick.”
He was home for about a month before returning to the hospital for his second open heart surgery.
“He’s had about 12 surgeries or procedures in his almost 12 years,” she says.
When Gabe was 3, he was found to have a rare chromosomal disorder called 3q29 deletion syndrome. When the geneticist called to tell the couple about it, there were only 10 cases in the world at that time.
“It’s a rare disease, so you don’t have a lot of information,” says Duggan. “So it’s really tough.”
Part of how Duggan is trying to help her son is by finding other cases and learning more about the disease. Gabe wasn’t making his developmental milestones. For the first few years of his life he was very delayed and even had to use a feeding tube. He also has autism and ADHD—which Duggan suspects are linked to the chromosome disorder.
Emory University in Georgia just got a grant to study 3q29. She says there seems to be a strong connection between the disorder, autism and heart defects.
“We’re participating in the studies and everything,” she says. “Hopefully we’ll learn more.”
Despite the challenges, the family has moved forward and even grown in size. The couple has two other children—daughters Seraphina, 7, and Alethia, 10—who adore their older brother and look out for him.
“Our family, I think we’re stronger for it,” she says. “My girls, they know about Gabe’s condition … they participate in therapies.”
She thinks it has shaped their perspective in a positive way.
“They grow up seeing something that most kids really don’t have to witness with a sibling,” she says. “I think they’re way more empathetic, kind, open.”
And Gabe himself has stabilized since those earlier years. He’s much better now after his third open heart surgery, which he had at age 3 1/2. He only has one surgery left—hopefully—which is to put in a pulmonary valve since he doesn’t have one.
“He’s stable,” she says. “He goes to school. He has friends at his school.”
He does struggle with anxiety, but he is doing well managing it. He’s very verbal, though he has articulation problems sometimes, and he’s mobile. He hasn’t had a feeding tube since he was 5. Gabe will most likely always need support for his condition, but he has come a long way.
“We’ve overcome a lot,” Duggan says. “It’s funny just to reflect back. … I couldn’t imagine any other way.”
It’s a lot of work, but it’s all been worth it.
“When tragedy strikes … you can go one of two ways: You can kind of go down that path of just kind of desperation and sorrow,” she says. “Or kind of turn it around and make the best of it. And we were really able to do that, which is pretty amazing.”
By Jessica Peralta
Photo above: (Left to right) Alethia, Christa, Seraphina, Gabe and Jeff Duggan pose for a family portrait.