By Maureen Gilmer, Riley Children’s Health senior writer, firstname.lastname@example.org
It was a special day to honor a special boy.
You could feel the joy – Junior’s joy – in the air.
You could hear the laughter.
You could also see the tears.
Nurses, physicians, therapists, support staff and family members gathered Saturday in the lobby of Simon Family Tower to celebrate a precious, precocious boy and spread his message of love and joy throughout Riley Hospital for Children.
The occasion was the release of a new red wagon into the fleet of Riley wagons that transport kids and their blankets, pillows and toys through the halls of the hospital.
All of the wagons at Riley are special. All bear license plates with the names of groups and individuals who have made a mark on the hospital and are paid for through donations to the Riley Children’s Foundation.
But this wagon is Junior’s wagon.
Brian “Junior” Aylor, beloved son of Brian and Mallory Aylor, and brother to Gabi Aylor, passed away last summer after complications following his second heart transplant. He had just celebrated his 3rd birthday.
He spent two of those years at Riley, so it was natural that he wiggled his way into the hearts of many team members in the CVICU and the Cardiac Step-Down Unit.
“It was impossible not to get sucked into Junior’s room by his laugh,” said CVICU nurse Emily Heflin.
That laugh, that chortle, endeared him to all of the team members lucky enough to care for him.
Lucky because Junior’s joy became everyone’s joy. It was contagious.
That’s the way he would want to be remembered, believes his mom.
“Knowing that Junior’s wagon will be wheeling through the halls and helping other Riley families … warms my heart,” she said. “It makes me happy to know that Junior’s joy will live on.”
The Aylors and their extended family were familiar faces on the heart floor, celebrating holidays and birthdays there, even as they longed to be home in southern Indiana.
“I met Junior the day he was born … in the thick of COVID,” Heflin recalled. “Mallory and Brian made a promise that Junior would never spend a night alone in the hospital. They couldn’t have known the magnitude of that decision because he went on to spend two years with us at Riley. They kept that promise.”
Junior, who was born with multiple heart defects and spent months in the hospital in his first year, underwent a heart transplant a few weeks before his first birthday. He enjoyed a year at home with his family before the new heart began to fail.
It would be another yearlong wait in the hospital before a second heart became available, but the little boy with the big personality could not overcome serious complications following transplant.
Heflin and others who spoke at the wagon ceremony said Junior taught them to be better nurses, doctors and people.
In the midst of everything, Heflin said, he chose joy every day.
“If we can all strive to make others happy, the world would be a better place. That’s his legacy.”
Cara Lathrop, vice president for community giving with the Riley Children’s Foundation, was on hand Saturday to welcome the Aylor family and thank them for their continued support of Riley.
“The Riley Children’s Foundation is honored to work with the family of Brian “Junior” Aylor as they release a wagon in tribute to him to be carried through the hospital for many years to come,” she said.
Surrounding the new wagon were toy donations the family brought to deliver to the Riley Cheer Guild, in the hope that other children will feel a little of that Junior joy.
“It’s amazing seeing everyone,” Mallory Aylor told the crowd, sharing hugs, tears and laughter as they recalled funny stories about her son.
“Riley and the whole team will always hold a special place in our hearts,” she said, adding that they have been with the family “through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.”
And now they are part of her extended family, she said.
“You never want to have to get admitted to Riley, but knowing your child is in the hands of a team that will care for them as their own is such a blessing.”
In blessing the wagon at the dedication, Riley chaplain Maggie La Rocque shared a poem written by Jan Richardson:
“May this wagon be blessed with the resilience of the boy whose name it bears and with the strength of the family that honors and remembers him.
May all who sit in this wagon be wrapped in love, as Junior always was and always will be.
May those who are carried by this wagon, themselves carrying hard things, have their loads lightened, even if only a little.
May those who pull this wagon be surrounded by those who have also pulled Riley wagons and who know that their journey was also challenging.
May those who pull this wagon have their hearts lifted, as those who saw Junior’s smile had their hearts lifted.
May those who sit in or pull this wagon be filled with and surrounded by a deep knowing that they are not alone, because they are a part of the Riley family.”
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.
Junior gets his second hero heart - Three-year-old boy has been waiting at Riley for a transplant since July 2022.
Junior brought joy to everyone he met - “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.”