A second chance: Heart transplant gives little girl new lease on life

Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

BRASELTON -- Seven Easter Sundays ago, Grace Callahan was born. This Easter, she was given new life.

A miracle, a blessing, call it what you will. After waiting 75 long days in the hospital, the call finally came -- Grace, a first-grader at Ivy Creek Elementary, was getting her new heart.

"It is like a miracle, to think that she got a heart and she's doing well," said Janet Ueberschaer, Grace's grandmother. "It's something you never anticipate when you have grandchildren, that you'd be going through this."

After four hours of surgery and a week of recovery, Grace was discharged from Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston Monday (a day earlier than originally expected), and is now resting comfortably at her home in Braselton.

"It's just been a miracle that it all happened the way it happened," Doug Callahan said. "The connection with Easter, that's just incredible."

On that Easter Sunday in 2003, Grace was born and was diagnosed with dilated cardiomypathy, or an enlarged heart, 11 days later. Doctor's didn't expect her to make it out of her first year without needing a transplant.

She defied odds.

"If you look at her heart as a young baby, it did not contract well and it was very enlarged. It was probably about the same size as a 14-year-old," said Dr. William Mahle, Grace's cardiologist at Egleston since she was a newborn. "But thanks to a number of medications that she was able to take at home, in spite of her heart looking quite large she was able to grow and do things that an infant and preschool child would like to do."

Her father, Doug, a teacher at Jones Middle School, and her mother, Audrey, a teacher at Mill Creek High School, went on working, even after Grace was admitted to Egleston on Jan. 19. She was added to the transplant list three days later, and the grueling waiting period began.

"The waiting period with her, just the unknown of when it was going to happen, was hard," Audrey Callahan said. "The waiting period was challenging, but we did as well as can be expected."

And the waiting wasn't without a grim reminder of what could have been.

"While she was there, a little boy down the hall died waiting for a heart," Ueberschaer said. "I had never thought about the fact that she could die waiting for a heart."

But Grace was strong. Amidst stomach pain that made it impossible for her to eat, she remained herself -- she painted, played games, watched movies and relished in her love for Disney star Hannah Montana.

"Kids are pretty incredible," Audrey Callahan said. "Her world is so unique. Her mind was on all of those everyday kid activities. For kids I think it's not as all-consuming as it is for older children or for us."

When the call saying a heart was ready for Grace came just after lunchtime on Easter, dad was already at the hospital, and mom was headed out the door.

Grace was ready for the biggest day of her life.

"She was a little bit nervous about the procedure of getting a new heart, but she understood and understands that she needs a new heart to live," Audrey Callahan said. "She was having a lot of pain, a lot of stomach pain especially."

"She knew she needed a new heart to feel better," she added, "and she wanted to feel better."

'A marvelous community'

More than 1,000 people crowded into the Mill Creek High School gym on March 26, all wearing red. They were there for a basketball game, but not to root their Hawks on to victory -- this time they were there for Grace.

In their "Amazing Grace" T-shirts, they were there for the Goals for Grace game, a matchup between faculty and staff from Mill Creek, Jones Middle and Grace's Ivy Creek Elementary.

All of it was for Grace's benefit.

"For the first 20 minutes I cried," Ueberschaer said.

That wasn't the start, nor the finish, of Hoschton and Buford's rallying around one little girl. Through a number of events, Ivy Creek alone has raised almost $22,000 for the Grace Callahan Transplant Fund, principal Yvonne Frey said.

There's also a percentage night at the Hamilton Mill Chick-fil-A on Monday, percentage nights every Wednesday at the Waffle House at Hamilton Mill Road and Ridge Road, and a benefit concert from the Jones Middle chorus and orchestra on April 24.

Then there's the smaller donations that can make all the difference in the world -- Frey said she knows of at least 10 children who have had birthday parties but accepted donations for Grace in lieu of gifts.

"Our elementary students are doing some incredible things to raise money," Frey said. "Lemonade stands, donating a week's ice cream money, donating their allowance, emptying their piggy banks. It is so heart-warming to see them support Grace so unselfishly." Donations can also still be made to Grace's fund at People's Bank and Trust on Buford Highway.

"We've been overwhelmed and very thankful for everything that the community has done and is doing for us," Audrey Callahan said. "We've never imagined it ... It's been amazing and has helped us carry through knowing that there are so many people out there."

Added Ueberschaer: "I've never seen any community that came to support someone like this community has. I think it's just wonderful. I think you have just a marvelous community in this area. This whole area I think is just wonderful."

'It's not a cure'

Grace is now back at home, just down the hall from a guest room that's now filled with cards and other messages from well-wishers, everyone from Mickey Mouse to Georgia football coach Mark Richt.

She'll have to check in with doctors regularly to stay on top of any signs of rejection, Mahle said, and will hope to be back to "the energy level and strength of any other 7-year-old child" in six weeks.

The first step has been taken, and Grace's life has been lengthened. Transplated hearts don't last forever though.

"We're trying to fool the body into accepting someone else's heart," Mahle said. "And while we can prevent rejection in the short term, sooner or later the body begins to realize that it's someone else's heart."

Statistics vary, but sources like the American Heart Association list the five-year survival rate following transplants around 70 percent. Every case is different, and the odds are in the favor of younger people like Grace. With technology and anti-rejection medications constantly advancing, transplanted hearts can now last up to 20 years, Mahle said.

That said, more of those advances "will need to come relatively soon" to ensure Grace a full and normal life -- one in which she says she wants to be a nurse so she can "poke people."

"She'll be on medicine forever ... It's not a cure," Audrey Callahan said. "The average (transplanted) child's heart lasts 14 to 15 years. But technology is continuing to change and meds continue to get better. Seven years ago, the average was 10 to 12 years. Over time the odds will continue to improve in her favor."

For now, Grace is just happy to be home with a new heart. Her favorite part?

"Sleeping in my own room," she said.