Donor heart gives 11-year-old a chance to fight back

By Renee Beasley Jones Messenger-Inquirer

Using her left hand, Za’Niyah Jackson slowly traced the figure eight on a large board in a therapy studio at Wendell Foster.

Next, the 11-year-old squeezed blobs of pastel-colored tempera paints on a white paper plate. With guidance from her occupational therapist, Za’Niyah dabbed a small red roller into the paint before heading to a large piece of blank butcher paper taped to the wall.

Her wrist wobbled as she pushed the roller slowly across the paper in an arched line.
“Keep your hips straight and use your arm,” said her occupational therapist, Crystal Tallent.

Za’Niyah’s weaker left hand and a brace on her lower left leg are the only outward signs of her harrowing medical journey.

On April 12, she celebrated her first year with a new heart.

Before her donor heart arrived, Za’Niyah suffered a stroke that weakened the left side of her body. The Burns Elementary student still spends eight hours a week in physical therapy at Wendell Foster.

As Za’Niyah tells it, she has battled the devil toe-to-toe.

And she won.

“She’s come a long way,” said her mom, Shaunisha Martindale, of Owensboro. “Za’Niyah has the willpower to fight as hard as it’s going to take.”

Before Za’Niyah’s heart failed early last year, she was an active girl who loved gymnastics and cheerleading.

She enjoyed school and dreamed of becoming a veterinarian.

Like most little girls, she liked getting her nails painted.

But just two days after turning 10 years old in early February 2017, Za’Niyah contracted strep throat. She ran a fever off and on for about a week.

Martindale took her to a doctor, who noticed something else.

Later that month, a heart specialist diagnosed Za’Niyah with dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition that decreases the heart’s ability to pump blood.

It is likely she had the condition since birth, Martindale said. Many people with dilated cardiomyopathy never exhibit symptoms and live a normal life.

But Za’Niyah’s heart started to fail — and fast.

On Feb. 22, 2017, she was flown to Norton Children’s Hospital in Louisville.

Over the next two weeks, doctors performed a heart catheterization and installed a heart pump.

A month later, Za’Niyah suffered a stroke. The left side of her body was so weak she couldn’t walk or get into bed without assistance.

Then, on April 12, a donor heart arrived.

Martindale doesn’t know anything about the donor. “I would love to know about the donor, whose mother was nice enough to give me extra time with my child.”

She spent three months in the hospital last year. At one point, she became depressed, Martindale said.
Months in the hospital meant months out of school, so she had to fight her way back academically, too. And she has.

She walked into Wendell Foster recently wearing a gray T-shirt that read: Strong like Mom.

Za’Niyah is strong, Tallent said.

Her physical comeback has been impressive, Tallent said.

“When she first came, she couldn’t lift her arm at all,” Tallent said. “She couldn’t grab anything with her hand.”

Eight hours of physical therapy a week is hard work, Za’Niyah admits. “It takes up a lot of my time. Like, right now, I would probably be at my friend’s house.”

Za’Niyah’s neurologist expects her to make a 95 percent recovery from the stroke.

Martindale is amazed at her daughter’s strength and resilience. “I can’t imagine going through the stuff she went through when she was only 10.”

Going toe-to-toe with the devil changes a person, no matter what age.

“At the end of the day, Za’Niyah wants to get back to the bubbly, energetic, loving little girl she was before she had this life-changing event,” Martindale said. ” … She has fought a hard fight and has never given up.”

Renee Beasley Jones, 270-228-2835, [email protected]