From happy person to heart patient: the story of a DC girl

From happy person to heart patient: the story of a DC girl

Jaela Vonderpool wasn’t just a cheerleader. She was a flyer.

She was the other girl cheerleaders raised on their shoulders and tossed into the air. She was the girl who expected, in the moments when her body was filled with a natural surge of stress, to look elegant and fearless.

If you saw Jaela play, you would have seen a child’s piste rocket.

That’s what makes what happened last February even more incredible for her mother, Cierra Lynn Taylor.

“She was healthy,” Cierra says of a recent night. “She was a cheerleader. She was not an introduction. And I don’t drink or smoke.”

As she tells it, she took her daughter for a normal physical that was needed for the 12-year-old to participate in cheerleading. Cierra assumed they would be in and out and then on another assignment. But when the pediatrician went to listen to Jaela’s heart, she heard a faint sound in addition to her normal heartbeat. “She said it was so weak you had to be trained to catch it,” Cierra recalls.

The pediatrician was concerned enough that she referred the family to see a Cardiologist at National Children’s Hospital.

At the hospital, after tests, the mother and daughter learned that Jaela had a congenital heart condition that could be fatal if left untreated. They were told that Jaela would need open heart surgery to fix it.

“What tripped me up was that there were no signs,” says Cierra. “I think that’s the scariest part about it.”

Cierra is a popular artist in the nation’s capital. Her bright, bold brushwork gained national attention after she began painting bathroom stalls in schools. She was an art teacher and she knew that was where the students went when they were being bullied or when they were the victim of it. She covered those stalls with self-esteem-boosting images and affirmations.

That work led to her partnering with the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, a non-profit organization that focuses on mental health. They set a goal to paint bathrooms in cities around the world. I first told you about Cierra when the pandemic put that travel on hold and she started making canvases of women’s bodies. She used body paint to tell their stories and empower them.

That’s what Cierra does. She makes people’s strengths come alive. More than 62,000 followers on Instagram have come to look forward to those colorful, uplifting displays. But on February 18 last year, they learned that Chierra’s own strength was being tested.

“I thought long and hard about sharing this here,” she wrote that day. “But our truth, our stories and testimonies always help and inspire others. Right now at my daughters bedside in the ICU. She had a 6 hour open heart surgery and is recovering.”

February 19: “Even though it hurts to see my heart, Jaela is resilient and pushing through. The heart surgery is a big one and I still believe that this is now part of his story and mine as a mom.”

In the same week that the country celebrates Valentine’s Day with balloons and heart-shaped cards, Jaela will mark one year since she underwent massive surgery to repair her real heart. Cierra calls her “survivor version”.

Mother and daughter have changed over the past year. They went from not thinking much about heart health to now asking people to pay more attention to it. They are using Cierra’s platform to share their story in hopes that it will inspire people to make that appointment, listen to their doctors and take better care of themselves.

“Go get those checks, even when things are fine,” says Cierra. She is not surprised that her daughter’s surgery took place during American Heart Month. “I want to find a way to take people’s hearts more seriously, especially this month. It’s cute that we wear red, but what else can we do?”

The pandemic has exacerbated heart health concerns. It pushed people towards unhealthy habits and caused people to postpone medical visits. Covid-19 has also directly affected people’s hearts. A newly published scientific study, according to a recent Washington Post article, found that “coronavirus patients were at ‘significant’ risk of heart disease a year after their illness, which increased the chance of blood clots, arrhythmias, heart failure and related conditions.”

Seiji Ito, the cardiologist at National Children’s Hospital who treated Jaela, says her heart condition is called an anomalous coronary artery. The condition, in which the coronary artery is in the wrong place, is often undiagnosed. It is responsible for athletes who suddenly collapse in the middle of an activity and sometimes die.

“That can be the first manifestation and the final presentation” of the condition, says Ito.

He describes Jaela as making an “amazing recovery” and says they will continue to monitor her progress.

“I’m hoping she’ll be able to get back to all the activities she enjoyed, including cheerleading,” he says. “Part of the reason we did the surgery is because we want her to stay active and continue to enjoy what she likes to do.”

Jaela is now 13 and loves to bake. His specialty is snickerdoodles. Before trying cheerleading she enjoyed gymnastics, and hopes to one day run track. She tells me this on a recent evening while sitting next to a heart-shaped pillow. She got it from Mended Hearts, an organization that supports heart patients, and it helped her get out of bed after her surgery.

The procedure left a significant scar in the center of Jaela’s chest. Chierra worries that her daughter will become self-conscious about it as she gets older. But when I ask Jaela about that evening, she describes him as her “best friend,” explaining that he will always be with her.

“It’s kind of a reminder that I actually had heart surgery, which is scary for a lot of people,” she says. “It reminds me that I really got this.”

After her daughter’s surgery, Cierra stopped body painting. But on a recent evening, to commemorate the one year anniversary since her daughter’s pediatrician heard that faint sound, she picked up her paint brush. With it, she wrote words on her daughter’s skin, including “strong,” “beauty” and “fearless.”

When she came to the scar, she did the opposite of hiding. She painted it glittering gold.

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