Birthday bash celebrates girl waiting for “hero heart”




Nine-year-old Ava is surrounded by those who hold her close in their own hearts as she marks five months on the transplant list.

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior writer,

The Heart Center at Riley Hospital for Children is a place of hope and heart in more ways than one.

Nowhere was that more evident Friday night than at a birthday bash in the teen room for 9-year-old Ava Graham, who has been inpatient for 150-plus days while waiting for a hero heart.

Surrounded by balloons, dragon decorations, cake and presents – but most of all by the love of family and friends – #AmazingAva and her parents, Jackie and Jami, were making the best of the first birthday she’s had to celebrate in the hospital.

Jami said despite the location, the party had her feeling “full of joy,” likely because she could see how animated Ava was as she greeted relatives and friends who came bearing gifts.

Among those dropping by to wish her a happy birthday was fellow patient Edward Sandefur, pushed in a wheelchair by nurses and his mom, Megan.

Edward didn’t feel up to having cake, but he wanted to see Ava open the gift he presented her.

Inside was a large stuffed cat that he purchased with his very own “brave bucks,” a kind of currency awarded to patients who have faced challenges with courage.

“I was gonna try to get that robot dog for you that you wanted, but someone already got it,” Edward told the smiling Ava as she hugged the cat and politely thanked him.

Gestures like that – from a young boy who is facing serious medical issues of his own – demonstrate just how much “heart” can be found among the patients, parents and team members on this unit.

One of Ava’s other friends on the Heart Center, Payton Himo, wasn’t feeling well enough to attend the party, but her mom, Matilda Perez-Himo, came to share in the family’s celebration.

“They are my friends,” Payton’s mom said, even as she worried about her own daughter after a particularly difficult night.

“We are far away from home, and they are a good support for Payton and me. There are some hard days here.”

After she and Edward and the rest of the room sang happy birthday to Ava, Perez-Himo would leave with a full heart and a dragon-themed cupcake for her own little girl down the hall, praying for a better night ahead.

Photos by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist,