Not many people get to hold their heart in their hands — literally.
It’s a chance to behold a miracle of science while experiencing an ultra personal biology lesson. Fifteen-year-old Gig Harbor resident Melissa Garrison got that opportunity in January after her transplant, taking a few minutes to hold her old heart over a sink.
Born with Hypo-Plastic Left Heart Syndrome, she had her first heart surgery when she was 4 days old. A volunteer at Discovery Elementary, where her mother works, Melissa went back to visit on March 12 for the school’s Jump Rope for Heart fundraiser.
She’s wearing a mask because she’s still healing — she fought some infections early on — but she was still able to say hi to her friends and teachers with big hugs.
The Jump Rope for Heart program, an educational outreach program of the American Heart Association, is a way for students to learn about heart health, said Kristina Waage, the school’s PE specialist.
Melissa’s experience brings the lessons on heart health and healing close to home for the students.
“They can relate to her. Some of them went to school with her; some of them live in her neighborhood,” Waage said.
When she was a Discovery student, Melissa was the top fundraiser each year, so Jump Rope for Heart is special to her.
Inside the gym, Top 40 hits blasted over the stereo as fifth grade students played Double Dutch with mixed results.
Melissa walks over from Gig Harbor High School, where she is in the ninth grade, to work with students in Ben Knodel’s class. When she surprised the class on March 12, she was able to answer their questions: Did it hurt? Does it feel different?
Meanwhile, through the morning at Discovery, her older sister, Jessica, snapped photos.
Jessica is a photography student at the Art Institute of Seattle. For her senior project she’s been documenting Melissa’s recovery, including taking shots of her chest as it heals and the moment where Melissa held her heart in her hands. Jessica will show the project after it’s completed, and she’d like to show it somewhere close to home.
“We live here and this is our community. This is where she’s been growing up,” Jessica said.
Melissa will be heading back to school in mid-April. She already has plans for when she gets to take off her mask: A frozen lemonade smoothie from Java and Clay.
“Life is getting pretty boring staying at home. She loves the social environment at school,” said her mother, Tami.
There’s also big things coming up for Melissa in August. She’ll turn 16 and her father says she can’t wait to get behind the wheel.
With a brand-new heart, there’s a great big future ahead.
“She’ll be able to grow and thrive,” said Dave, her father.
When she stood in front of Knodel’s class on Thursday, she was able to give them an exciting update.
“I’m doing good,” she said.