Tuesday, April 23, 2024

The Heart of the Matter: Local teen thriving after transplant

Donning a pair of old glasses, a fake beard and mustache, and a flat tweed cap on his head, Liberty Christian sophomore Jackson Blanton looked at ease as he stepped on stage in February for his long-awaited performance in “Fiddler on the Roof.” At just 16 years old, his undeniable command of the stage and intimate connection with the audience and his cast mates could only be outshined by how obvious it was that he was having the time of his life.

He didn’t miss a beat. And for the first time in what felt like an eternity, neither did his heart.

“Singing and acting is my favorite thing to do,” Jackson said. “I can finally do everything a normal kid should do without thinking twice.”

That wasn’t always the case for the better part of the past four years. In 2019, this once-healthy and active kid who loved to sing, act, play baseball, and hang out with friends was diagnosed with restrictive cardiomyopathy, a condition where the muscles of the heart’s lower chambers (ventricles) stiffen and can’t fill with blood. As a result, blood flow to the heart is restricted. He was only a sixth-grader when he nearly fainted at school and watched in fear as his heart rate dipped to 32 beats per minute.

After living with a pacemaker for three years and being limited in what he could safely do, his condition worsened to the point where he needed a heart transplant. He had the life-saving surgery on September 14 — only eight days after being put on the transplant list.

And now, Jackson feels like the whole world is his stage.

“Having a pacemaker is hard as a teenager because you’re constantly having to worry about getting hit in the chest,” Jackson said. “I couldn’t play sports, exert myself too much, and I couldn’t really work or be on stage. It was basically a robot helping my heart beat, and it was no way to live my life — so we knew the answer was to have the surgery.

“Prayer works, and it absolutely affects people’s lives. Without so many people praying for me, I doubt I’d be this healthy.”

Restrictive cardiomyopathy symptoms can vary depending on the severity and also happen suddenly and without warning. Thankfully, Jackson had plenty of good people in his corner from Day 1. As the story goes, he was walking down the hallway at school around 10 a.m. back in 2019 when he began to feel like he would pass out. His friends immediately ushered him to the nurse’s office, where he was met by two nurses — one of whom had previously worked in the emergency room at Parkland Hospital for 10 years. The other had a lengthy history as a pediatric nurse, and they could both tell that Jackson’s heart rate was dangerously low.

By the time they notified Jackson’s parents and the ambulance arrived, his heart rate was back to normal. On paper, that was great news. But on the other hand, it was difficult for doctors to determine what happened.

Several ideas were tossed around as he sat there in the emergency room at Cook Children’s, including an immediate heart transplant. But the cardiologist suggested they wait and run more tests. Over the next nine days, Jackson would undergo 11 heart tests — none of which could recreate the event or lead them closer to a more accurate diagnosis.

“They sent me home with a heart monitor, and I went back to school and started rehearsals again,” Jackson said. “I had just walked off stage after an energetic scene, and a cast mate told me I came off stage, passed out on the floor, got back up again, and went back on stage and did my scene. I don’t remember any of it, but the good news was that they caught the event on the monitor.”

As it turns out, Jackson’s bottom chambers of his heart had intermittently stopped beating for several seconds. He had a pacemaker surgically implanted and lived with that for the next three years.

While there weren’t any additional episodes, he recalled being extremely limited in what he could do safely. Furthermore, his condition silently worsened to the point where his heart relied 100% on the pacemaker.

“The doctors said it was time for heart surgery at that point,” he said.

The surgery was an instant success, but Jackson was more blown away by the outpouring of support for him and his family.

“Prayers and love literally came from everywhere,” he said while choking back his emotions. “Family and literally anyone that I or my parents had met or known were coming out to show their support. I received gifts like sweatpants and bundt cakes, and people would come by the hospital or go to our home to help keep it clean. It was amazing — it was an entire community coming together.

“There were times when I felt like I had been forgotten because I couldn’t be out with my friends doing the things I loved. But when I was at my lowest, people wrote cards, visited, and called to check-in. That was my base — that kept me going.”

Miraculously, Jackson was released from the hospital after just nine days. Fast forward to today, and he’s back in school and feels stronger and healthier than ever. Not only was his latest performance in “Fiddler on the Roof” a smashing success, but he recently earned a chance to spend three weeks on campus this summer at Ithaca College in New York for an intensive program where he gets to learn from voice professors, choreographers, and various other acting professionals.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity that I’m really looking forward to,” Jackson said. “And for the long term, I’m just looking forward to not having anything holding me back. I can pursue what I want in life without my heart being an issue.”

Related Articles

Popular This Week