Tuesday, July 26, 2011

From an airborne plea, a friendship balloons

180 miles apart, girls become pen pals. Children strengthened by discovery they are both dealing with pain.

The red balloons bumped against each other before fanning out in the blue sky. Each carried a yellow note containing a fervent request:
“I am 9 years old and I am having my second heart surgery on April 21, 2011. Please send me a prayer if you find this.”
Bita Honarvar, bhonarvar@ajc.com
Sara-beth is examined by hepatologist Dr. Rene Romero at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston as her brother Michael waits. Both children have had liver transplants

Some balloons fizzled and fell to earth, others soon vanished. Sara-beth Martin of Cochran wondered: Would any of her balloons reach New York?
We’ll never really know. But one traveled farther — into the heart of a girl who faced troubles of her own.
Eight-year-old Reanna Roberts was sitting on a swing at her grandfather’s house in Vance, S.C., about 60 miles south of Columbia, when she spotted something red in a nearby bush. A balloon? It was limp after soaring 180 miles from central Georgia.
And it had a note.
“My name is Sara-beth Martin,” it began. The note ended with the address of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston, where Sara-beth was awaiting surgery.
Thus began a friendship based on hope, built on optimism. Two little girls were about to discover they had more in common than living in small Southern towns. Both had faced adversity, both knew pain.
Each also discovered her new friend was resilient and strong, determined to treasure what life brings.
And in this case, it arrived in a red balloon.
“Of all of the places, and of all of the people out there, Reanna was the only person who found one of the balloons,” said Sara-beth’s mom, Becky Martin. “I believe everything happens for a reason. Maybe it was to help them both deal with the coping process. I consider this such a blessing.”
Reanna responds
Reanna grabbed crayons and a sheet of paper and drew a picture of herself and Sara-beth.
Reanna lost her mother when she was just 4 years old. At 34, her mom quickly succumbed to cervical cancer.
But when Reanna sat down to write her first letter to Sara-beth, she made no mention of her loss; instead her thoughts and prayers were for Sara-beth.
Please get well soon. ... I hope your hert sergery[sic] goes well. And I am 8 and I herd you were nine. And I found the red balloon with a letter attached that talks about you. And my name is Reanna Roberts. And I pray you get well soon. P.S. I want to be your friend.
Reanna’s father mailed the letter later that day.
At Sara-beth’s send-off party less than a week before her surgery, family and friends donned red T-shirts saying, “I wear red for Sara-beth.”
On the day of the surgery, Sara-beth’s family learned about another young person rooting for the girl in the operating room: Reanna’s letter arrived.
Sara-beth’s second surgery is the latest chapter in a long journey of medical woes.
Born with Alagille Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder affecting the liver and other parts of the body, she underwent a liver transplant when she was 3 years old.
Last year, Sara-beth was having difficulty breathing, requiring emergency heart surgery to repair her mitral valve, which controls the way blood flows through the heart’s chambers.
A few months later, Sara-beth’s labored breathing returned, making it clear she required a second surgery, this time to replace her mitral valve, which wasn’t opening and closing properly.
Waking up following surgery and still groggy from the anesthesia, Sara-beth was given Reanna’s card. She smiled but didn’t say much. The next day, she asked to see the card again.
“I liked it so much,” said Sara-beth. “I thought it was sweet, and it was neat to see the card. ”
Sara-beth wasn’t surprised one of her balloons was discovered so many miles from her hometown.
“My mom was joking it might not fly past the pavilion at the party, but I just had this feeling some would probably travel very far away,” she said.
Once Sara-beth was home from the hospital, she called Reanna. The two girls got to know each other better. Sara-beth talked about how she loves karate and softball.
Reanna talked about her affinity for drawing pictures and singing.
They described their respective small towns. Sara-beth explained that her town had one stoplight. Reanna’s has none.
They talked about how much they loved the water. And they asked their parents for a play date.
The girls meet
In June, the families met at Hilton Head. Sara-beth’s family had a trip already planned; Reanna and her father drove over for the day.
The two girls spent much of their time together in a pool, jumping and splashing and talking.
Reanna said she felt a special connection; it was hard to explain.
Then she added, “I know what it feels like to be sad.”
Reanna told Sara-beth about her mom, an aspiring country singer who died too young. Reanna told her new friend that she loves to sing, too, and hopes to someday be a singer just like her mom.
Reanna said she only has a couple of friends and one is her cousin. Now, she says, she has one more.
“We are friends,” said Reanna, who stands about a head taller than the diminutive Sara-beth. “I could see that she’s just like me in a way. She’s kind of little, but she’s rough and tough like me.”
At a recent check up at Children’s, Sara-beth, wearing an orange bow in her hair, carried a binder containing dozens of homemade cards from friends and classmates . It holds the card from Reanna in the front pocket.
Since the surgery, Sara-beth’s energy has soared. Her appetite improved and she gained 8 pounds. She passed her test for her yellow belt in karate. She will soon go to an overnight summer camp. And she can’t wait to join her classmates as a fourth-grader this fall at Bleckley County Elementary School.
Also at the recent checkup, Dr. Rene Romero, medical director of the liver transplant program at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, marveled at how Sara-beth went from frail to highly energetic in just a matter of months. The heart surgery was successful, he said. Sara-beth’s health challenges will require lifelong medical attention, but he’s optimistic she will continue to thrive and do well.
Meanwhile, Reanna continues to spend many afternoons in her grandfather’s yard, inventing songs in her head. On a recent afternoon, she sang a song about a caterpillar and a butterfly.
“Butterfly fly and butterfly fly if you want to, butterfly fly away. ...”
She sings about a butterfly leaving her side, and she hopes for more surprises to fly into her life.

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