By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, firstname.lastname@example.org
It was all Janet Mann could do to keep from running onto the course.
Her daughter had collapsed just yards from the finish line of a cross-country sectional race at Mount Vernon High School in Fortville. Emma Mann, a senior at New Palestine High School, tried to get up twice and fell again and again.
She was leading that race, her mom said. Even a broken leg wouldn’t have stopped her. But something had. Another runner, Ella DesJean, a student at Franklin Central High School, came upon her and stopped to encourage her. Helping her up, though, would have been grounds for disqualification.
That’s why Janet Mann held back too. She didn’t want to see her daughter disqualified after working so hard all season. But she knew something was wrong.
Emma has battled anemia since her freshman year and sees Dr. Allison Yancy in the hematology clinic at Riley Hospital for Children. She had recently received an iron infusion, though, so the fatigue her parents began noticing a few days before the race puzzled them.
EARLIER IN THE RACE
“She doesn’t look right,” Mann’s husband, Jeff, had said about halfway through the sectional competition. “She looks really tired.”
But still, Emma kept running.
The 17-year-old would tell them later that she knew something was wrong at the 2-kilometer mark in the 5K race. She told herself she could power through to the end.
She almost made it.
Mann, who was hobbled by a broken ankle that warm October day, decided to head to the finish line with her husband so they could greet their daughter at the end of the race.
Emma was leading when she came up on the last stretch. She looked a little wobbly, her mom remembers. At first, her parents thought her leg was hurting her. Within seconds, she was down.
“There wasn’t another runner anywhere around her,” Mann recalled. “She just went down. She started to get back up and fell again.”
A few seconds later, Ella DesJean came across her competitor on the ground and stopped.
“She’s an amazing kid,” Mann said of the FC runner. “She said, ‘Emma, come on, get up. You’re so close. Let’s finish together.’”
Meanwhile, Mann wanted to go under the flags lining the course to get to her daughter, but she held back for fear of Emma losing a shot at finishing the race.
“That was horrendous as a mom,” she said.
ROLLED TO THE FINISH
Emma didn’t have the strength to stand, and Ella was prevented by the rules from helping her up. Eventually, Emma rolled over the finish line and closed her eyes, her mom said.
That’s when Mann raced to her side and cradled her daughter, who was pale and weak, just as another woman came to help. Identifying herself as a nurse, the woman checked Emma’s vitals as someone called for an ambulance. Her pulse was rapid, so they worked to cool her down and reassure her before the ambulance arrived to take her to IU Health Saxony Hospital.
Emma would later be transferred to Riley Hospital after doctors identified a potential cardiac issue. Now under the care of Dr. Megan Wilde, a Riley cardiologist, she continues to undergo tests to monitor her heart function.
A Riley physician told her that first night that she was lucky. She had experienced just the sort of irregular heart rhythm that can cause sudden cardiac arrest.
She didn’t feel lucky in the moment, Mann said. Emma pleaded with the doctors to speed up the testing so she could be ready to run again – to compete at state. But after failing a stress test, it became obvious that she was not going to be running for a while.
That was the first time she cried.
LOOK FOR THE HELPERS
In the chaos after the race, Mann told the nurse by her side that she wanted to be sure someone thanked the FC runner for her kindness.
“I’ll be sure to tell her,” Mann recalls her saying. “I’m her mother.”
Mann was blown away by that simple statement.
“That girl has more character in her little body than a lot of adults do,” she said.
The nurse is Stacy DesJean, a former Riley nurse who says the compassion her daughter displayed comes naturally to her.
“She is a caregiver and is always looking out for others,” DesJean said. “Especially this last year has made her aware of other people’s situations.”
That’s because a year ago, Ella’s little brother, Will, was diagnosed with cancer and she has helped take care of him. Will, who was featured in another Riley story in October, completed his treatment and continues to regain his strength.
Health scares have brought the two high school runners from competing schools together, and they have forged a friendship. Emma presented Ella with the IHSAA Face of Sportsmanship pin at her cross-country practice earlier this fall.
Recently, Emma invited Ella to attend a breakfast for Camp Little Red Door, a program for pediatric cancer patients. For years, Emma has provided Peace Bears to camp participants and others, and she recently presented one to Will.
“Emma loves to help,” Mann said.
So, it takes a special kind of grace to receive help when the tables are turned. Emma is learning how to do both.
Until she gets clearance to be active – running, swimming and biking – she is focused on serving others. Her Peace Bear project is one way to spread joy, and she is working on a service project through school to get more AEDs (automated external defibrillators) into Hancock County schools. In addition, she continues to volunteer weekly with a special-needs choir at Butler University.
“Watching your child collapse is the worst moment you can imagine,” Mann said. “But Mr. Rogers is famously quoted as saying, ‘Look for the helpers.’ We had helpers at every turn,” she added.
As her daughter continues to be monitored by her Riley team and awaits a cardiac MRI later this month, Janet Mann wants to put the focus back on all the people who have helped Emma these past two months – her friends and teammates, coaches and all the people at Riley involved in her care.
“I can’t even tell you how wonderful they’ve been,” Mann said. “When you go to Riley, you have no idea, in a circumstance like ours, how bad it is. And when you walk in the door, they treat you as if you’re the only person there. There’s just a comfort there that is a little different.”
That is all the more impressive when you consider the current pressures in healthcare, she said.
“The hospital has surely been understaffed at times, yet they continue to operate with grace and love while providing unbelievable care to children and families during their most vulnerable times,” she said.
“Riley does an amazing job of rising above the challenges to help patients feel safe, secure and cared for completely. In a situation that has been plagued by uncertainty, one thing is certain: Emma has been cared for in one of the nation’s best children’s hospitals right here at home, and we should never take that for granted,” Mann said.
“On the contrary, we should express our gratitude to those in healthcare who are likely overworked right now but certainly never show it to families who are feeling overwhelmed and afraid.”
“ANGEL NURSES” AND PHYSICIANS
She praises all of the “angel nurses” at Riley and singles out Dr. Wilde and Dr. Yancy for always going the extra mile and being generous with their time, helping Emma and her parents talk things through and feel confident they are on the right path.
“Both are amazing doctors and even better people,” she said. “It’s the human element that takes the care to the next level.”
Dr. Wilde describes the Manns as an “absolutely lovely family” who have been patient as doctors work to tease out any underlying illness in Emma that would have precipitated her symptoms. Initial tests were inconclusive.
“They have been very understanding as we have needed to tailor our treatment plan to Emma’s needs and symptoms,” the physician said. “This is a process, and we are going to learn it together. We remain hopeful that we will be able to get her to a place where she can do those things she loves so much. Time will hopefully allow us to better understand what her options are.”
In this season of giving, Mann wants to give thanks for all the helpers – at Riley and beyond – for their compassion, their kindness and their care.
That includes the IHSAA official who was officiating the race when Emma collapsed. After her discharge from Riley, he presented her with an IHSAA hat and a lap bell with her name and the race date engraved on it.
This is not how Emma or her parents expected her senior year to go. The teen, who wants to be a special education teacher, is still hoping to run in college on scholarship. Having to cheer from the sidelines while her teammates continued running this year hasn’t been easy, but she has handled it with grace, her mom said.
“Sometimes your parenting is revealed in the strangest spaces,” Mann said. “You hope you raise your kids to be graceful, resilient, hopeful and positive. You hope you don’t have to see it in the worst circumstances, but when you do, it does feel good.
“She’s going to be OK in life.”
Photos submitted and by Janet Mann