Fourteen-year-old Chrysantha Bradley returned to Juneau on Wednesday with a heart nearly twice her age.
The young heart transplant patient was greeted like a celebrity, with banners, flowers and a white limousine.
``I was so happy I was shaking uncontrollably,'' Bradley said hours later. ``I still am. I got more than what I was expecting, and it was unbelievable. Truly unbelievable.''
Coming home has been Bradley's dream since she left for Seattle in the fall to wait for a new heart. On Dec. 2, she became the youngest patient ever to receive a heart transplant at the University of Washington Medical Center. Most heart transplant patients are in their 30s to 50s.
Her youthful optimism helped her through the frightening ordeal.
``What kept me from falling was I was too deep in denial, too deep,'' Bradley said. ``I didn't really see myself as dying. I just saw myself getting better.''
But she wasn't. Since being diagnosed with severe congestive
heart failure three days before her 13th birthday, Bradley's body had slowly disintegrated. By November, her bad circulation was causing her kidneys and lungs to fail.
``I was definitely slipping. It was getting harder just to get up to go to the bathroom,'' Bradley said.
Stuck in bed, she dreamed about her future.
``I was just daydreaming what it would be like to come home, to go back to school, to get on with my life.''
She plans to go on to college, earn master's degrees in business and world history, and then open a club and restaurant with her cousin.
Her homecoming Wednesday was better than any of her dreams. At the first sight of land out the jet window she bounced in excitement and started a pillow fight with her mom. Friends and relatives were waiting.
``I just ripped my mask off,'' said Bradley, who has to wear a mask on planes and other crowded areas to protect her suppressed immune system from germs. ``What I wanted to do was run off the ramp and scream `I'm home!' ''
Bradley and her friends toured town in the limousine her father's boss, Hugh Grant, hired to welcome her home. They circled Juneau-Douglas High School ``a few hundred times,'' waving to friends.
Bradley knows little about the heart that made her homecoming possible, only that it's 26 years old and came from Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. If she continues to do well, she may someday be able to communicate with the family of her benefactor.
``I would really like to thank them,'' Bradley said. ``I still give them so much respect and so much credit for the courage to do what they did.''
Bradley has been recovering in record time. Within 25 hours of the surgery she was sitting up eating Sour Patch Kids to wake up her taste buds. Six weeks after the surgery she went bowling.
Now her lung power is back to 96, after hitting a frightening low of 36 two years ago. Above 95 is considered normal. She can walk for half an hour at a time. She plans to start volleyball training soon and has been invited to play at the transplant Olympics in Orlando, Fla., this June.
Within a week she'll visit JDHS, where she started as a freshman last fall. She can't handle the long walks from one class to another yet, but she hopes to make up enough credits this summer to start as a sophomore in the fall.
``I'll just pick up where I left off,'' Bradley said.
``A little at a time,'' cautioned her mother, Tina Bradley.
The problems aren't over. The first six months are particularly crucial, and Bradley has to be careful not to strain her new heart.
``STOP!'' reads a bold sign on the Bradley's Gruening Park apartment door, ``If you have a cold or anything contagious DO NOT ENTER. Any infection could greatly harm Chrysantha.''
Every few months Bradley must fly to Seattle for a biopsy to check how well her body is accepting her new heart. She pops 55 pills a day, with a monthly pharmacy bill of about $1,500.
``I was flabbergasted,'' said Tina Bradley. ``It's just amazing how much it adds up to.''
So far the medical bills have cost a quarter million. When Bradley reaches $1 million, insurance will stop paying altogether. The people of Juneau have filled in the gaps, raising $24,000.
``It's just amazing how the community has come together to help this one child survive,'' Tina Bradley said.
Another fund-raiser will be held at the Moose Lodge on March 25 to celebrate Bradley's 15th birthday.
``I'm very excited. This will be a good birthday,'' Bradley said. ``It's special because I'll be able to celebrate it, here, in Juneau.''