A will to survive – and graduate

ndunn@newsobserver.comJune 13, 2014 

Tahiara Clark, a teenager, has a grown man’s heart. At least that’s what her mom says.

The Clayton High School senior, nearly one year removed from the heart transplant that saved her life, eats a lot more these days, something her mom KaSette jokingly attributes to a possibly older, masculine donor.

People often ask Clark if she’s taken on any other unusual traits since her surgery last year. She can’t say she’s inherited any superpowers, but she does feel better, a simple sense of comfort that she coveted for so many months.

It wasn’t that long ago that an undiagnosed heart illness was causing debilitating pain in her stomach and back. Just after spring break last April, Clark remembers throwing up twice a day – every day – and her feet swelled so severely that she couldn’t walk from the school’s parking lot to the front door.

“I would come home every day and sleep,” she said.

Clark’s pediatrician thought she had a stomach virus. But when her symptoms continued, the doctor sent her to the hospital, where a body scan showed an enlarged heart with two blood clots.

She was admitted to Duke University Medical Center on May 15, 2013. After two weeks of additional testing, doctors inserted a device in her heart designed to help pump blood throughout the body. However, not long after that surgery, Clark said, her doctors knew she would need a transplant.

“It was shocking to find out it was my heart, but whenever you have heart issues, it always effects different parts of your body,” she said.

Because of her size, blood type and condition, Clark rose pretty high on a list of transplant candidates. Her mother remembers the day the doctor told her family the good news.

“He came in and was like, ‘Are y’all in a good mood today?’ ” KaSette said. “He said, ‘Are y’all in the mood for a new heart today?’ 

The family had a party in the room, and KaSette said she even started dancing with the nurses.

“When you get news like that, you just want to call everybody,” KaSette said.

Catching up

Clark’s heart transplant took place July 6, 2013. After the successful surgery, she started a long rehabilitation process, both in and out of the hospital.

In particular, she still had to be cautious as her immune system recovered. That meant she wasn’t able to go back to school, and Clark said she was concerned about falling behind.

“The only thing I was worried about was getting back to school and graduating on time,” she said.

Because she entered the hospital in May 2013, Clark was unable to finish her junior year. And though she needed just few credits to graduate on time, she wasn’t sure how she’d squeeze them in.

But in September 2013, Clark started taking chemistry classes at home, and after finishing her rehab program in December, she started back at Clayton High. This semester, she took English, discrete mathematics and principals of business, which gave her enough credits to graduate.

“She had faced a lot of unfortunate circumstances and was really, really sick, but no matter what, she never gave up,” said Tonya Thompson, a pediatric cardiac intensive care nurse at Duke who worked with Clark.

Thompson, who has been with Duke for more than two years, said she will never forget Clark’s “beautiful personality” and “will to survive.” Patients like her “have a resilience to get better,” she said. “She always leaned on that, no matter what.”

Moving forward

Karen Villanueva, one of Clark’s close friends and a fellow Clayton High senior, said her friend has come a long way since sleeping in classrooms during lunch and struggling to walk to and from classes.

“She’s so much happier now,” Villanueva said. “She is enjoying this opportunity of life she has.”

Clark plans to study business administration and social work at N.C. Central University. It’s her goal to be a child life specialist, similar to the one she had while she was in the hospital.

“I sometimes felt like no one understood what I was going through,” Clark said. “I feel like if I can be there for a child, I can let them know that I know what they are going through.”

Clark said she has talked to other transplant candidates since her surgery, including a 14-year-old girl who was apprehensive about the procedure.

“I was able to answer a lot of questions for her,” Clark said. “Afterward, I asked her if her views had changed, and she said yes.”

Before she leaves for college, Clark and her family are headed to Disney World, a trip made possible by the Make-A-Wish Foundation. She picked Disney World not for herself but for her 5-year-old brother Kabari Brantley, who she said didn’t have much of a summer break last year while she was hospitalized.

“Most people would have thought, ‘I had a crappy summer last year, and I’m going to do what I want to do,’ ” her mom said. “But she’s always putting people before herself.”

Dunn: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104

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