My daughter - my hero: A resiliency success story

  • Published
  • By Maj. Michelle Suberly
  • Air Force Global Strike Command Office of the Staff Judge Advocate
As we recognize American Heart Month this February, I am struck by the thought that heroes and role models don't have to be older than we are. I need only look to my 12-year-old daughter Renae. When Renae was a few hours old, she started turning blue. Within a few hours she was diagnosed with a rare congenital heart defect - Ebstein's Anomaly. Amazingly, she was home after only one week with no medications, monitors or oxygen.

At 13 weeks of age, her heart rate jumped to almost 300 beats per minute in an abnormal pattern, an arrhythmia common with her heart defect. Over the course of the last 12 years she has been on medications to control her heart rate, aspirin to prevent strokes, surgical procedures to eliminate the heart rate issues, and had her valve surgically repaired. Through it all, she has become a high achieving student and competitive gymnast, which would have seemed impossible, even to her doctors.

While this has been a life-long issue for Renae, the last year and a half has truly inspired me. In October 2011, Renae had her third surgery to try to eliminate the rhythm issue. When we returned for her follow up a month later, she was in the abnormal rhythm, but it was at such a low rate, we didn't notice. Once again the surgery didn't work.

Renae was frustrated with yet another hospital stay and return to medication. Then she started talking to other kids in the hospital playroom, including one who had been in the hospital for several weeks and expected to be there several more. With that perspective, her attitude quickly perked up. In January 2012, Renae had her fourth surgery to eliminate the heart rhythm issue (so far successful). She competed in a gymnastics meet the very next week. Everything was falling into place.

Then, in February 2012, she fell off the high bar during practice and fractured both bones in her lower right arm. While most kids would have moped around, she was back at the gym two days later doing leg lifts, sit-ups, anything she could do to keep the rest of her body in shape. She even learned how to do one-handed back handsprings with her non-dominant left hand. Seven weeks later, the cast came off, but she still was not allowed to do a full practice. When Renae was finally cleared for practice, she had only one practice left before scheduled open heart surgery. She gave it her all during that practice.

As we approached the day of her open-heart surgery, I was a nervous wreck. Her heart defect is so rare, very few surgeons will even touch it. The doctor was going to have to rebuild her valve and move it two inches higher, where it should have been in the first place. Renae wasn't worried at all; she trusted that God would protect and heal her. She was at peace, and way stronger than the rest of her family.

Her attitude and strength from gymnastics paid off as she was ready to leave the ICU a day earlier than expected -- they had to scramble to get a room ready on the regular floor. She had surgery on a Thursday and was home Tuesday, and was forced to take ibuprofen to control inflammation even though she wasn't in pain. Six weeks later, she was off all medications and back in the gym. Within a few weeks she regained every skill she had before the broken arm four months earlier.

On Feb. 9, 2013, Renae competed in our home gymnastics meet and won first place in the vault, uneven bars and all-around in her age group for Level 5 (levels go 1-10). She was shocked and the look on her face was priceless. A week later, she did it again in a meet in Arkansas, and with her sisters Jessica and Elizabeth, led her team to a first-place finish.

Renae has overcome so many challenges in her short life. When she won at those meets, it was a victory over those challenges and a victory over her heart defect. Her love of life, her fighter spirit and her faith keep her from staying sad or giving up. I only have to look at my miracle daughter and realize that I can overcome any setback and do the things that others tell me are impossible. She is the model of resiliency. She is my hero.