CINCINNATI - As the heart monitor beeped, the red lines flipping up and down, showing a steady 85 heart beats per minute, Payton Herres and her family remembered what it was like just one week ago.
A few miles away from the hospital, downtown, thousands of runners planted their feet, leaned down and touched the pavement. "Runners set!" shouted the announcer for the Heart Mini Marathon.
Then, the gun shot… "And they're off!"
Something remarkable was happening just as the Heart Mini Marathon runners took off from the starting line.
Herres, 11, was getting a new heart at Cincinnati Children's Hospital.
"I usually calm myself by closing my eyes and dreaming of myself at the beach," she said about preparing for the scariest moments of her life.
The girl, who is named after Peyton Manning, loves drawing, watching cartoons and playing with her dog Lucy — and she was given a second chance at life.
Her mom hoped for the best.
"I'm one of those people who choose faith over worry. That's like our motto now, that everything's going to be OK," said Lisa Herres. "I feel like everything's going to go up from here."
Payton, a fifth-grader in Centerville, Ohio, was born in 2000 with Epstein's Anomaly, a rare congenital heart disease. In the beginning, they said, it was severe; however, over time it was downgraded to a milder form of the condition. But then she experienced trouble doing normal activities, especially her favorites like soccer and volleyball, as well as running in gym class.
"Every time I run in the gym, I usually feel like I'm going to faint any minute, and I usually get really hot," Payton said.
Her heart would beat about 250 times a minute at its worst, seemingly beating right out of her chest. Her parents said that you could actually see her chest pumping through her shirt when it would get bad. After a couple of medical procedures, she was put on medication that steadied her heart rate. They thought they were finally in the clear.
"We thought everything was great," remembered Lisa.
She said her daughter appeared to be a happy, healthy pre-teen.
"This was really disguised. She looked like a normal kid, same activities, smiling, happy. Everything was going great until December. She had this cough."
Lisa thought that it might be her allergies, but her cough became chronic, and nothing was helping.
Four weeks ago, her cardiologist located the problem. It was a blood clot. Her heart, however, wasn't strong enough for the surgery that she needed, so doctors told the Herreses to get into "transplant mode."
"Our world was turned upside down," said Payton's father, Don Herres.
Payton remembered how she felt as her family prepared for the worst and hoped for the best.
"Stressful and scared, scary," Payton said.
While waiting in the hospital, undergoing tests and having her heart monitored closely, Payton was put on the transplant list on Friday, March 9. Nine days later, they got the news. She had received a heart.
"[It was] exciting and sad at the same time, because someone had to pass away for her to get her heart," Don said.
It was at that moment when runners, like Amy Robillard, hit the pavement for the marathon.
The Heart Association-sponsored marathon announced just before the race that Payton was having her heart transplant that morning — making some runners emotional but determined and inspired.
"It's hard not to think about your own child," said Robillard, the Heart Mini Marathon female winner. In fact, she said, it's what kept her going on the course, who teared up as she talked about Payton.
"For any family or child to go through a medical crisis like that, it can turn your world upside down, so when you think about a race and if you're nervous about the weather or how you do, it squashes it. So, it's motivating," Robillard said.
Payton's heart was enlarged and previous pictures of her heart displayed a discolored organ.
"It was gray, kind of like, scaly looking and then you see pictures of the new heart and it's nice and pink and red," said her mom.
"[It's] pretty awesome, because I can do what I want and not get tired easily and feel like I was going to pass out," Payton said.
Her parents remembered how she woke up after the surgery. They had just taken her breathing tubes out and she sat straight up in bed and said, "Thank you God."
"It was like she knew it happened. She knew it was a good thing. I had to walk out of the room," said an emotional Don about the moments he first saw his little girl wake from her heart transplant.
But the worry is not over yet.
"A lot of people think 'Oh, you know, she'll get a new heart and then that'll be it the end of it.' But it's a lifelong. I mean you're trading one problem in, for another whole different set of problems. She'll be on medication for the rest of her life," said Lisa, who worries about her youngest of two children.
For now, they're celebrating both of her birthdays. The one she was given nearly 12 years ago on March 28, 2000, and her newest birthday on March 18, 2012.
"Thank God we're
celebrating a birthday because if this didn't all work out the way it worked out, we might not be celebrating a birthday," said Lisa.
For her upcoming 12th birthday, Payton had just one wish.
"Getting out of this hospital," she laughed.
One life can save eight with organ donations. Thankfully for Payton, she was one of those lives. And her dad couldn't thank them enough.
"We want to thank the family for the gift that they've given our family, our child. Saying ‘thank you' is not enough," said Don. "I know that Payton's gonna do good things with it."
"She's got a gift and I think she's got a lot to give," he added.
Payton said in order to utilize that gift, she plans on exercising and taking care of her new heart.
Her advice to others is "don't give up hope."
She may be getting out of the hospital as early as Tuesday, but will stay in Cincinnati near the hospital for the next few months. It may be three months before she can return home permanently.