Like his classmates, Jacob Harris received a special gift upon graduating May 20 from Andover Central High School. Unlike them, however, his gift was a lifesaver.
Jacob had a good reason for skipping his high school graduation ceremony -- he was sitting in a hospital bed at Saint Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., waiting for a new heart. Back in Andover his mother, Rebecca Harris, walked across the stage and accepted Jacob’s diploma for him. All while Jacob watched the ceremony via a Web cast.
“I was pretty emotional,” Rebecca said. “One thought I had was that I just didn’t want to cry walking onto the stage.”
Jacob was pretty emotional as well. Unable to say much because of an irritated throat, he said it “meant a lot” to finish high school and receive his diploma. But no one could imagine the special gift yet to come.
After the ceremony, Rebecca and her husband, Randy, drove back to Kansas City where they hosted a party at the hospital for the new graduate. They got to bed around midnight, only to be awaken at 1:15 a.m. May 21 by a call eight months in the making – a heart was available that was a match for Jacob.
Rebecca and Randy dressed and rushed to the hospital to share the good news. Instead of finding Jacob asleep, he was still up.
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“He thought he was in trouble because he was sitting there playing his xBox,” Rebecca said with a laugh. “We told him they had a match. He was like, ‘What?’ He didn’t believe us. Things went really quick.”
Hospital staff did the necessary prep work and blood work. After inserting a heart line and an IV at 5 a.m., they took Jacob to the surgery area. About 9 a.m., the new heart arrived at the hospital and by 10:30, it was being put into Jacob’s chest. He was back in his room by 3 p.m. and taken off the ventilator by 8:30.
Not the best student
Although he graduated on time, Jacob was not the most studious pupil. ACHS principal Cheryl Hochhalter called him “a handful” during his freshman and sophomore years.
“(He was) very, very spirited; bordering on naughty,” she said. “We had lots of one-on-one conversations in my office.”
She didn’t believe school was important to Jacob, who liked to divert his attention to fun things.
“We were kind of like two mountain rams – we were knocking heads quite a bit those first couple of years,” she said. “When it wasn’t adversarial, he would warm up and you could see the real Jacob inside. … Once I found what he enjoyed, we developed a relationship where I saw potential, but he didn’t quite see it yet.”
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Jacob attended school for just 11 days his senior year. It was a Friday when he was working off a detention that Hochhalter began to notice a newfound maturity.
“Even as we talked that night, he said he wasn’t going to get into trouble. He was going to focus more on school his senior year,” she said. “That’s what made it so hard when he went into the hospital and missed his whole senior year.”
Born with bicuspid aortic stenosis, Jacob has always seen doctors and cardiologists on a regular basis. Although a December 2007 checkup showed nothing wrong, the next month he went into cardiac arrest during a physical education class.
Called a “normal, active kid” by his mother, this was the first problem Jacob had ever experienced with his heart. Things settled down after he had an implant put in. That is, until last summer when he complained of chest pains but doctors couldn’t find the cause.
During a Sept. 9 checkup, an echocardiogram revealed vegetation on the aortic valve. If the vegetation were to break off, it could cause a stroke. The cardiologist immediately sent Jacob to Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City where a bed was ready for him by evening.
“The first thing he (Jacob) told us when we were driving here (to Kansas City) that Friday was (that) he needed to get back to school Saturday to work off detention from Ms. Hochhalter,” Rebecca said.
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Following a series of tests, doctors at Children’s Mercy replaced a valve and valve root two days later. By Sept. 14, Jacob wasn’t eating any better so he was transported to Saint Luke’s. It was there the Harrises learned he needed a new heart.
Back to school
Despite all he was going through, Jacob was determined to graduate. He had taken some online courses that summer, and Rebecca spoke with Hochhalter to determine what classes he could take online in order to finish. It turned out he needed a full load, plus one-half credit.
“I wasn’t sure because his stick-to-itiveness in the classroom wasn’t always disciplined,” Hochhalter said. “We were just really proud … that he had the maturity and the dedication to stick with it.”
Although the nurses at Saint Luke’s have spoiled him, Jacob’s stay was anything but fun. Inadequate blood flow necessitated the amputation of his left leg above the knee.
He has endured the amputation and received a new heart. Jacob now needs to muster the energy and determination that enabled him to finish his senior year from a hospital bed into a force that will lead him forward in life. At this point, he seems to be on the right track.
The night he received his heart, Jacob was up sitting in a chair. Each day he walks around the hospital with a physical therapist, gradually increasing the distance he travels.
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“He’s just been doing amazing,” his mother said. “To look at him, he just looks fantastic. He’s ready to go home.”
It’s not certain when Jacob will be able to do that. Rebecca says it is normal for a transplant patient to stay until after the first biopsy. Considering what Jacob has been through, she believes they will keep him longer.
“Don’t know if it will be two weeks or 21 days,” she said. “We just know there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”