Junior brought joy to everyone he met

Patient Stories |



“He was strong, he was brave, he lit up any room he was in. He taught me that happiness and joy are not circumstantial, but a way of living purposefully every single day.”

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior writer, mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

Brian “Junior” Aylor collected friends and fans like other kids collect Hot Wheels or stuffed animals.

People who met him couldn’t help but be smitten by his grin, his giggles, his fake laugh and his love for books, farm animals and Cocomelon.

“Junior joy” is how his mom described it. And it was infectious.

A lot of the friends he made were at Riley Hospital for Children, where the little boy spent most of his short life.

Junior, who celebrated his 3rd birthday with a party at Riley in June, passed away two weeks ago, not long after undergoing his second heart transplant.

It was during a prenatal appointment when Brian and Mallory Aylor found out their baby had serious heart defects, including hypoplastic right heart syndrome, tricuspid atresia and transposition of the great arteries.

Junior underwent his first heart transplant just a few weeks before his first birthday. The family, which includes big sister Gabi, enjoyed a year at home before Junior’s new heart began to fail. It would be another year before a second heart became available for transplant, but he could not overcome the complications that followed.

His death shook the team at Riley, where he wiggled his way into the hearts of nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists, physical and occupational therapists, and maintenance personnel – all of whom could share a Junior story or two.

Whether it was the day he donned a white coat and scrub cap – twinning with his favorite surgeon, or the birthday party when he dressed as a farmer watching over his toy animals, or the countless times he walked the halls of Riley in his “old man” robe, he made his mark on the Heart Center.

Of course, Mallory and Brian Aylor always knew their little boy was special. But now, legions of folks know it too.

“Aren’t we the lucky ones,” one team member said about being in Junior’s orbit.

Because as much as Junior was a son, a little brother and a grandson, he was a boy of great joy – albeit with complicated medical needs – for those who surrounded him at Riley.

“There are so many things that he has taught me in his short life,” Mallory Aylor said as she summoned the strength to pay tribute to her son at his service last week.

“He was strong, he was brave, he lit up any room he was in. He taught me that happiness and joy are not circumstantial, but a way of living purposefully every single day.”

Most of all, she said, “I love the way he loved. It was so pure, and you could just feel his love when he looked at you. He was a bright light to many, and I pray I can continue to spread Junior joy.”

Junior loved books, especially books about trucks and farms. He would snort like a pig, or moo like a cow, his mom said, but he could also trumpet like an elephant, roar like a tiger and flutter his hands like a butterfly.

Emily Heflin, a nurse on the CVICU, said she had the privilege of taking care of Junior the day he was born and on his last day at Riley.

“He will forever be remembered for his Junior joy. Any bad day on the unit, and there are many, he would make it better with his smile and willingness to play,” Heflin said. “Junior and Mallory made me a better nurse and mother. His spirit will always be felt on the third floor.”

Sarah Crider, also a nurse on the CVICU, remembers how Junior loved to give fist bumps and blow kisses, how he loved movies and eating ice.

“Ice, ice baby,” he would say. It happened so often a nurse bought him a shirt with those very words.

“He was so special and so happy despite his situation,” Crider said. “It was an honor to care for such a sweet boy, and I’m so sad things didn’t go the right way. We all tried our best.”

About 25 Riley team members traveled to Bloomington for Junior’s funeral service last week, something they couldn’t have done without the support of others at Riley who stepped up to fill their shoes while they were away.

“PICU stepped up, travel nurses, pool nurses … that spoke volumes about this place and how we all come together," said CVICU nurse Melissa Keesling. “People knew we were hurting. There was just something about Junior.”

For those team members who couldn’t get away, she worked with Riley chaplain Maggie La Rocque and others to provide a time and space for them to grieve at the hospital.

There were photos, flowers and a bowl of tiny rocks shaped like hearts for people to take to remember Junior and why they choose to do the work they do. There was even a “rage book,” for colleagues to express their anger or sadness, not just about Junior’s death, but other patients they’ve lost.

“There is power in expressing your feelings, whatever they are,” La Rocque said.

For Keesling, Junior will forever be associated with joy in her mind.

“There was joy because of him, the pure joy he brought us and the joy he got out of life. I will do things the rest of my career and think, ‘Junior taught me that.’ I used to stop in his room to say hi or read a book, and he would blow kisses,” Keesling recalled.

She blew him one last kiss as the funeral service ended.

Submitted photos and file photos by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, mdickbernd@iuhealth.org

Previous stories:

Junior gets his second hero heart - Three-year-old boy has been waiting at Riley for a transplant since July 2022.

Junior gets a new heart weeks before his first birthday - Brian and Mallory Aylor’s son was born with multiple heart defects. He has been hospitalized at Riley for 7 months.

Junior waits for a second hero heart - The 2-year-old transplant patient is back at Riley as his parents pray for another lifesaving gift.