Teen and 8-year-old build friendship after having same cardiac ailment and cure.
By Anne Blythe | Charlotte Observer
DURHAM He's an outgoing chatterbox.
She's coy and sparse with her words.
Josh Winstead, a 17-year-old in his senior year at Wakefield High School in suburban North Raleigh, would seem to have little in common with DeAsia Washington, an 8-year-old from Farmville, a rural Eastern North Carolina town.
But the duo became fast friends over the past month, sharing an extraordinary bond.
Each suffered from cardiomyopathy, a chronic disease of the heart muscle that can cause irregular heartbeats and possibly heart failure. Each also received a heart transplant last month at Duke University Medical Center.
On Wednesday, just weeks after their respective transplants, the unlikely companions checked out of the hospital together in a bittersweet moment complete with hugs, bubbles and tears.
DeAsia and Josh are ready to begin the next chapter outside the patient rooms and hospital hallways that have become familiar turf. But the two plan to keep in touch. There will be letters, phone calls and maybe visits.
They and their families are connected.
In any given year, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, 250 to 350 children in the United States receive a heart transplant.
Veronica Williams, DeAsia's mother, could not have imagined her daughter being part of such an exclusive list before March. That's when she took DeAsia to a Pitt County doctor, thinking she had a bad cold. Maybe the flu.
"He said, 'You have a very sick little girl,'" Williams recalled Wednesday.
What followed were two heart pumps, a stroke and, ultimately, the transplant on Nov. 21. Williams knows that her daughter's new lease on life didn't come without a cost - another child had to die for DeAsia to get a new heart.
"What I want them to know is how blessed and thankful I am to have a part of their family in my family," Williams said, her voice choked with emotion.
Before leaving Duke on Wednesday, DeAsia scooted through the hospital hallways, flashing big smiles and playfully trying to trip Dr. Michael Carboni and the many nurses, social workers and others who had became her extended family.
Tight hugs were out of bounds for the child, who describes herself as a tomboy, because her arm was sore from a recent injection. "Flu shot, just had a flu shot," DeAsia said, leaning in head-first for a loose embrace.
Getting the word
Josh arrived at Duke in early November, days after DeAsia celebrated her eighth birthday on Halloween. The tall, thin football player and wrestler had been having difficulty eating. Even though his older brother, Edwin, suffered from cardiomyopathy, neither Josh nor his family thought that could be at the root of his stomach problems.
After several visits to doctors in Wake County and a trip to the emergency room, doctors finally diagnosed Josh with cardiomyopathy, too. They suggested he go to Duke, which was a bit of a godsend for his parents. Edwin, 26, was already there, on the seventh floor.
But his health had deteriorated, and on Nov. 15, Edwin died. Wanda and Byrd Winstead, Raleigh residents for 30 years, were in the heart-wrenching position of planning a funeral for one son while the other grew sicker.
Wanda Winstead, just as chatty as Josh, recalled the morning that she and her husband told Josh about Edwin's death. They had spent the night at the hospital to see him first thing the next day, before he had time to go on Facebook and possibly hear the tragic news there from friends.
Josh had to take a Duke Lifeflight helicopter, accompanied by a doctor, to attend Edwin's funeral.
Good news for DeAsia
As Josh's family mourned,DeAsia's got a bit of welcome news.
For the better half of a year, Veronica Williams had been making the 90-mile drive between Pitt County and Durham County. On weekends, she worked in the cardiology unit at Pitt Memorial Hospital in Greenville to help pay the bills. Then, during the week, she was back in Durham, tending to the needs of her daughter.
The stress had become overwhelming. She knew a pump keeping the blood flowing through DeAsia's heart was only a temporary solution. Since April 8, she had kept a mental count of the days that had passed since Duke doctors had installed a Berlin Heart, a German-made pump that, though still in the experimental phase with the FDA, holds promise for infants and children.
Williams was helping an adult patient at Pitt Memorial Hospital when the call came - DeAsia was getting a heart. Several days later, Josh was going in for surgery to get a heart pump when news came that he, too, was about to get a heart.
Josh did not even know he had been put on the transplant list, but a match was found very quickly. He thinks his brother was in heaven and had something to do with it.
"He was up there saying, 'He's my brother, get him a heart,'" Josh said.
Lives have changed
Though medicine is advancing, children who receive heart transplants often need second transplants 10 to 15 years later, Dr. Carboni said
Josh knows his life has changed both physically and emotionally, but he left Duke on Wednesday hoping to pick up life where he left off. The day before he went to the hospital, he was planning to take his SATs. He still plans to go to college, with a historically black college as his first choice. On Wednesday, he talked about going to wrestling matches and hanging out with friends.
DeAsia, too, was looking forward to a little bit of everyday normalcy.
The first thing she wanted to do when she got out?
"Play," she said.
Healthy diet from now on
Both she and Josh know they are going to have to eat "heart-healthy" for the rest of their lives. DeAsia might not get pigs' feet, hot sauce and the Bojangles biscuits that she and her grandmother once shared. Josh will have to say "no" more often to the fast food and junk that make up so many teenage diets.
As the Duke lobby filled with goodbyes Wednesday, DeAsia tried to be nonchalant. As she had done many times before and after Josh's transplant, she rode by on a large red tricycle, tooted the horn and signaled for him to join her.
See you, they said to each other.