In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

February 7, 2017

Students Rally Around Classmate After Her Heart Transplant

By In the Loop

After a heart transplant, Kiarra Dixon receives support from her classmates.

Kiarra Dixon was just six months old when she was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy. Those were big words — and a big diagnosis — for such a little girl. "It took me years to learn how to say that," Kiarra, now a seventh-grader at Lincoln Park Middle School in Duluth, Minnesota, recently told FOX 21-News. The condition, which affects the heart's ability to pump blood, can eventually lead to heart failure.

For years, Kiarra's condition was managed with medication, and she "lived a relatively normal life," according to WDAZ News. But that changed in 2015, when Kiarra's condition worsened and her name was added to the list of those waiting for a heart transplant at Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus. Doctors told Kiarra's family "she was at risk for 'sudden death,'" so she had an internal defibrillator implanted in her chest to restore her heartbeat if need be. Kiarra also began wearing a backpack that "held a pump full of medicine" that was continuously pumped into her heart. At school, a team of classmates and teachers were trained to help out in case of an emergency. The multistep plan included CPR and a scripted 911 call. "It was a village effort," one of Kiarra's teachers told WDAZ.

In May 2016, Kiarra's condition worsened again. Her name was moved onto a high-priority list of patients awaiting transplant. And four months later, the family received a call. A heart was available, and they'd need to be in Rochester within four hours to prepare for surgery.

Kiarra "freaked out," when she heard the news, according to WDAZ. "I went from being a 12-year-old to being a 3-year-old in about five seconds," she told the station. "I was scared. I wasn't ready for it." Her mother, Jenny Dixon, says she "asked God for help" and then "found the courage to tell her daughter that she needed to go." A few hours later, the family was at Mayo Clinic. Kiarra had moved beyond her own fears and was comforting those around her. "She is very grown up for her age," Jenny tells WDAZ. "I don't know if it's because of who she is or what she's gone through."

"What she's gone through" now includes a heart transplant, a three-month recovery at Mayo Clinic and the Ronald McDonald House in Rochester, and, as of late December, a return to middle school. These days, instead of a backpack full of medication, Kiarra wears a surgical mask. It helps keep out the germs that her immune system would have difficulty fighting off.

Initially, a few students teased her about the mask. But after the school explained Kiarra's condition — and "provided masks for kids to wear in solidarity" — she's now receiving support from her classmates, something FOX-21 says "is helping to mend a broken heart."

Kiarra seems to agree. "It was like the best day ever," she told the station of seeing a sea of masks at school. "People I didn't even know were wearing masks." It's a small gesture that has made a big impact. "It's really important," Kiarra told the station. "When you've been through so much you want everyone there for you."

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Tags: dilated cardiomyopathy, heart transplant, Patient Stories

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