The Pony Express

A New Heart and a New Chance at Life

Student shares medical trials and triumph

Photo+by+Yacob+Reyes
Photo by Yacob Reyes

Photo by Yacob Reyes

Photo by Yacob Reyes

Yacob Reyes, Staff Writer

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Junior Tane’a Valery stands in front of a mirror, staring at the young woman across from her.  

Her eyes focus on the map of scars on her body that tell an incredible story—a story she relives every time she sees them.  

A story that began 17 years ago, 2 months after she was born, when the doctors first noticed an abnormality within her.  

Valery was diagnosed with a condition called dilated cardiomyopathy, where the heart muscle is weak and enlarges with time. This was due to an abnormal protein in the heart muscle that she was born with.  

“When I found out about Tane’a’s diagnosis I was extremely scared. I was worried that something would happen to her, that this brand-new baby that I just got would have been taken away from me,” said Tamara Todman, Valery’s mother.  

Despite her condition, Todman and Valery’s specialists tried their hardest to give Valery an ordinary life, to help give her the opportunities that any other little girl would have while also keeping her well-informed about her health. 

“I always involve patients and parents in all discussions about their medical issues—so even as a child, we had drawn pictures of the heart, so she knew what issues we were following,” said Dr. Gul Dadlani, Valery’s specialist. 

Like other young girls, Valery attended a sleep-away camp at age 8 called Camp Boggy Creek, a weeklong event for kids with different medical conditions to get away from the real world and be with kids just like them. 

“At Boggy, it’s like a whole other universe. There, I went by the nickname ‘Poptart’. Some of my friends from there didn’t even know my real name until years after. Boggy is just filled with such love and happiness. You get to learn about kids who are just like you, and it was definitely one of the best experiences I’ve ever been through,” said Valery. 

Her ordinary life, however, would come to change as she entered her teenage years, as her heart slowly began showing increasing signs of weakness. Valery often spent countless hours at the nurse’s office waiting out the pains that emanated from her chest. 

A week before Christmas of 2014, Valery received news that would change her life forever. She had been waiting for what had seemed like an eternity for her doctor to return with results.

The hospital room was devoid of any life. The walls were dull and quiet—a tranquil sea of white disrupted by animated fish drawings. She remembers that room perfectly, as the recurring visits made sure of that.

Dadlani managed to muster up a smile while walking into the room, wearing the face he always did when the news wasn’t good.

She remembers the way his voice shook as he went down the list of vitals, and the dreaded pause that followed.  

Valery felt as if the whole world had gone silent while he paused, as if it were all waiting for the words to escape his lips. 

Her heart was failing. The news lingered in the air like the smell of rain after a malevolent storm.  

She laughed in disbelief, disrupting the silence that had engulfed the room, but when she locked eyes with Dadlani, the doctor who had followed her case since she was four months old, she couldn’t hold back her tears. 

“For me, it was so surreal because I knew many kids who have the same problems as I, but I never thought I would be one that would need a transplant, that would be so close to death. Whenever I would see my friends with heart issues, I would look at their scars on their chest, feeling like an oddball. But I soon knew I would know what they felt like,” said Valery. 

After being placed on a waiting list for a heart transplant, Todman took Valery home for Christmas, fearing that it might be her last one with her daughter.  

Together, Valery and her family created memories that would last a lifetime, counting on the holiday in hopes of a Christmas miracle. 

Although the average waiting period lasts anywhere from 1-6 months, a week after Christmas on Jan. 3, 2015, Valery was awoken in the middle of the night with the news that there was a new heart waiting for her.   

The announcement left her with a whirlwind of conflicting emotions; up until then she hadn’t realized the severity of her situation and now faced a moment that could mean either life or death. 

Valery rests following the 10-hour surgery. Photo Courtesy of Tane’a Valery

The following hours were a nervous haze of teary goodbyes with family and friends as she prepared for surgery. 

As Valery was wheeled away towards the operating room, her anxiety began to fade the closer she got to the doors. Valery recognized that it was futile to stress over her situation; all she could do was think positively and hope for the best. Following wishes of good luck from the staff in the surgery room and a count to 10, Valery spent the next 10 hours on the operating table. Her friends and family waited for her outside. 

While the details following her surgery remain cloudy for Valery, she remembers a few moments after she woke up. 

Valery’s original heart, following the transplant. Photo Courtesy of Tane’a Valery

“I woke up asking for snacks when I barely was allowed to drink water,” said Valery, “Scribbled on some paper and just slept a lot.” 

Though the transplant was successful, and Valery now had a new fully functional heart, this wouldn’t be the last of her medical struggles. 

In the 3-4 months of what could only be called a difficult recovery, Valery often felt weak and wondered if she would ever return to her normal life. 

“It truly was really rough. I couldn’t do a lot of the same stuff. There were times where I wanted to give up and where I thought [the] surgery wasn’t worth it,” said Valery. “I knew that things would take time for me to feel like my normal self, but at the beginning, I just felt like I was so weak and that things wouldn’t get better.” 

Following the transplant, Valery has gone through 8 additional surgeries to ensure the functioning state of her heart and is scheduled to undergo annual surgeries for the foreseeable future. 

She has overcome many obstacles regarding her health and her heart, and though some might believe this would forever be a thorn in her side, Valery disagrees. 

“Now I feel like everything is okay. I live an absolutely normal life with a few doctors’ visits here and there,” said Valery.  

Today, you’ll see Valery walking down the halls proudly bearing her hidden scars just under her shirt and just over her heart. Aside from these, it’s hard to tell she experienced such hardships only three years ago. Valery is a smiling character among her peers, one that never fails to share her sweetness with others. 

“She is a dynamic young woman who now [has] the opportunity for a new life with a new heart,” said Dadlani. 

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