Starting kindergarten with a new heart and a dazzling smile

Patient Stories |

08/15/2021

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Makayla Owens received a heart transplant at Riley last October. Now, the little girl with the big grin is going to school for the first time.

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

Mariah Gavia-Locke had to wonder if this day would ever come. Sure enough, it was her baby girl’s first day of kindergarten.

Five-year-old Makayla Owens brought more than a new backpack and mask to school that day. She brought along her new heart.

Makayla received a heart transplant Oct. 8, 2020, at Riley Hospital for Children. Dr. Mark Turrentine was her surgeon. It was the culmination of a long wait for the young girl, who was born with multiple heart defects.

She was just 3 when she arrived at Riley in July 2019 to prepare for a transplant, and she didn’t go home again until Feb. 27, 2021. Two birthdays, two Halloweens, two Thanksgivings and two Christmases. All spent in the hospital.

Since that February discharge day, she has been working with therapists at home to get stronger and to walk independently.

When we visited with Makayla last week, she was getting home from all-day kindergarten at Edison School for the Arts in Downtown Indianapolis, the same school her older brother and sister attend.

The long day had worn out the kindergartner though, as her mom nudged her awake in the car, then carried her into their home.

But when the camera came out, Makayla opened her eyes and flashed her trademark smile. Dressed in a blue school jumper and snazzy black Chucks, she grabbed her walker from the bedroom and pushed her way into the living room to hop on the sofa.

She hammed for the camera, while her mom talked about her progress as she approaches the one-year anniversary of her transplant.

“It’s great having her home again,” Gavia-Locke said. “I want her to be able to have friends and be a kid again.”

Makayla is used to being around adults, after 18 months at Riley, so school is a new concept. But she has already made friends in her classroom and says she spends her recess with other kindergartners collecting rocks, which they display on their desks.

Asked what her favorite part of school is, she said simply, “Coloring.”

Because of the long hallways, Makayla uses a wheelchair at school, but she gets around pretty well with her walker at home. The hope is that with continued therapy she will regain her strength and begin walking on her own in time.

She suffered a setback in April when she broke her left leg while playing with her siblings, so therapy had to be put on hold for a while.

“It’s a matter of building strength and confidence,” Gavia-Locke said. “She’s worried about falling. Once she gets steady enough, it’s just a matter of time.”

Makayla, who will turn 6 later this month, returns to Riley every few weeks to see cardiologist Dr. John Parent and the cardiology team to make sure her new heart is doing its job.

“There’s still so much she can’t do, but she definitely has more energy,” her mom said.

But even kindergartners get tired. It’s naptime for Makayla after a long day at school, so after smiling for the last picture, she takes off her shoes and crawls into bed with her unicorn and all of her other stuffed friends, many of them collected while she was at Riley.

Having her daughter home again, sleeping in her own bed, means the world to Gavia-Locke.

“I don’t think she understands where her heart came from, but she knows she feels better.”

Photos by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, mdickbernd@iuhealth.org

Previous stories:

She has a new heart but the same old sass - Five-year-old Makayla Owens’ heart was weak, but her spirit was strong. After 17 months at Riley, she’ll soon be going home.

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