By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, firstname.lastname@example.org
From the moment he was born, Isaiah Mays had a special heart. The mechanics of it weren’t quite right, but oh the love that poured from that heart was something to behold.
And the love he gave to others came back to him ten-fold. His mama, his brother and sister, and his Riley family can attest to that.
It was a powerful thing – the love people had for him. That’s why the tears flowed freely among team members and family alike when he passed Jan. 26 at Riley Hospital for Children.
Doctors and nurses crowded into his room, desperate to save him, as his mother, Machelle, ran down the hall toward him. She had just arrived back at Riley from her home in Evansville and was parking her car when she got the call that Isaiah had taken a bad turn.
“I had packed up everything to come stay with him until he could go home,” she said. “He asked me to bring him a box of Froot Loops and white cheddar popcorn.”
She was frantic as she raced through the hospital.
“I’m yelling down the hall, ‘Isaiah Luke, your mama’s here and I brought your Froot Loops.’ ”
It was not the reunion either of them had planned. Isaiah, who had fought so hard and for so long, had slipped away.
“I grab my baby’s hand and tell him, ‘Mama is here. I love you, Isaiah Luke, and I am so proud of you. You rest, baby, and you be with God now.’ ”
BORN WITH HEART DEFECT
Isaiah Luke Mays wasn’t a child. He was 19 years old, a man in some people’s eyes. But he was Machelle Mays’ baby, always and forever.
Born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a life-threatening defect, he had his first open-heart surgery when he was 3 weeks old. He coded twice, his mom said, and she did what she always did. She prayed.
“Father, if you decide that Isaiah is meant to go back with you, all I ask is that you give me the strength to endure my life without him. Thank you for giving him to me for these three weeks.”
Isaiah made it through that surgery and had another heart operation at 6 months old, suffering a stroke two weeks later that permanently weakened his left side. Another surgery followed at age 5.
“We just rolled with the punches,” Mays said. “He did occupational therapy and physical therapy growing up. Every challenge he had in life he met it. He was always a fighter, never a quitter. I brought him up that way.”
He badgered his middle school basketball coach to let him do more than get water for the team. He wanted to play. Finally, the coach agreed, putting Isaiah in the game with one or two minutes left to play. Isaiah had a limp, but he could shoot that ball. And just like you see in the movies, Isaiah made that shot, and the crowd roared.
“Don’t judge me by what you see,” he would tell anyone who would listen. “I assure you I can do more.”
DETERMINED TO GET DIPLOMA
Isaiah arrived at Riley on Dec. 15, 2020, via LifeLine from Deaconess Hospital in Evansville. The high school senior had contracted COVID-19 and was intubated. Because of his underlying heart condition, the virus posed an even greater threat. He spent weeks in the Riley CVICU, though not always on a ventilator, and was transferred to the step-down unit on 3 West when his condition improved.
When he was able to speak but still in intensive care, he told Riley schoolteacher Lindsay DeWilde that he had two credits he needed to earn to complete requirements for his high school diploma, and he wanted her help to reach that goal.
The two worked together daily for a month. Isaiah was determined.
“Even on days when I could tell he felt horrible, he wanted to do school. I would say, ‘Why don’t I come back tomorrow so you can get some rest?’ And he would say, ‘Lindsay, sit down, we’re doing school.’ ”
He never complained, DeWilde said. He was more interested in other people than in himself.
“Any time I would walk in the room, he would ask how I was doing and how my day was going. For a kid in the hospital, thinking of other people is not typical because they’re focused on getting better. He always thought about other people.”
“I’M SO PROUD OF HIM”
Isaiah didn’t live to see the day when he earned his high school diploma, but his mom was overjoyed to receive the official document from his southern Indiana school district last month. Her niece even surprised her with a portrait of mom and son, adapted from a photo, with a graduation cap and gown superimposed on Isaiah. She treasures both the diploma and the portrait.
“The feeling of receiving his diploma is indescribable,” Mays said. “It means everything. I’m so proud of him. He achieved what he set out to do, through all the obstacles he faced in life. He took every challenge as an opportunity to do more, give more.”
CVICU nurse Teejay Ramsey remembers the first time she took care of Isaiah when he was awake enough to talk. Together, they called his mom, who at the time wasn’t allowed to visit because of COVID restrictions. At one point in that call, Ramsey was so touched by Mays’ kind nature, she joked, “Will you be my mama, too?”
The older woman didn’t miss a beat. “Of course, baby,” Ramsey recalls her saying. “We don’t have much, but what we have we’ll share.”
Ramsey worked at the hospital Christmas and New Year’s Eve and spent time with Isaiah as he FaceTimed with his family back home. She was once again struck by the love expressed in those conversations.
“We joked that because we spent two holidays together it meant we were family.”
And her family became his family in a way. She talked about her two daughters so often that Isaiah began calling them his little sisters.
“Every time I’d see him, he’d ask for pictures of them, want to know what crazy stuff they were up to,” Ramsey said.
The last time she saw Isaiah was before she went on vacation. That’s when he insisted she put his mom’s cell number in her phone. She resisted at first. After all, his mom was planning to come up to the hospital soon to stay with Isaiah until he was discharged. He seemed to be improving.
“It was like the last thing he wanted to do,” Ramsey said. “He wanted to make sure we kept in contact.”
MAKE ROOM IN YOUR HEART
Isaiah took a turn for the worse while Ramsey was traveling. When Mays called, the nurse thought she was calling to set up a FaceTime with Isaiah. But there would be no more FaceTimes. She called to tell Ramsey that Isaiah had passed.
“His mom lost her baby boy and one of the first things she did was to call me,” Ramsey said.
Since then, the two have kept in touch, just as Isaiah would have wanted. Ramsey and her family have stopped at some diners featured on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” and sent pictures to Mays because that was one of Isaiah’s favorite shows.
The day her son died, Mays had brought shirts with her that her son wanted to give to some of his caregivers on the heart unit, including DeWilde, Ramsey, physical therapist Jake Copeland and nurse Nate May. He wanted them to wear the shirts on the day he went home.
“He just loved them all,” Mays said. “And they spoiled him rotten.”
The shirts were printed with the Scripture Isaiah 54:17, along with the words Forged In His Strength.
Ramsey and her girls wore those shirts to his funeral.
“I’m trying to honor his memory,” she said. “I saw him at his sickest, and to know I was able to give him a little bit of comfort is why I’m a nurse.”
A HEART OF GOLD
The loss of any patient is hard, but saying goodbye to Isaiah was particularly difficult because of the impact he made on the unit.
“Isaiah taught me that even when there is something difficult going on in your life, you can continue to keep moving forward and trying your best,” said DeWilde, who worked with Isaiah even on his last day.
“Even when he was so weak, he still gave 120 percent,” she added. “As a mom, if I can raise my children to grow up to be just like him, I’ve done something right. He was such a bright light to everyone.”
She credits Isaiah’s mom for raising such a kind, determined, faithful son and was thrilled when Mays sent her a copy of Isaiah’s diploma to hang in her office.
“We text a lot. She’ll say, ‘I’m thinking about you, sugar.’ She is just the sweetest person.”
Now, Mays, a single mom who recorded Scripture for her infant son when he was in the NICU 19 years ago, thanks God for the time she had with him.
“You chose me to be the mother of Isaiah, and I loved every moment of it,” Mays prayed. “I praise you, even in this, even if I see my baby is not going to be with me here. The prayer that I prayed when he was just 3 weeks old is the prayer that I’m going back to. He is with you now so give me the strength to endure my life without him.”
Despite the sadness, Ramsey feels fortunate to have met and forged a bond with Isaiah and his family.
“Sometimes you make little spots in your heart for people to live the rest of your life and that’s what Isaiah did for me. He had a heart of gold.”
Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, email@example.com