Commentary by Maj. Michelle Suberly
Air Force Global Strike Command Office of the Staff Judge Advocate
2/25/2013 - BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. (AFNS) -- As
we recognize American Heart Month this February, I am struck by the
thought that heroes and role models don't have to be older than we are. I
need only look to my 12-year-old daughter Renae. When Renae was a few
hours old, she started turning blue. Within a few hours she was
diagnosed with a rare congenital heart defect - Ebstein's Anomaly.
Amazingly, she was home after only one week with no medications,
monitors or oxygen.
At 13 weeks of age, her heart rate jumped to almost 300 beats per minute
in an abnormal pattern, an arrhythmia common with her heart defect.
Over the course of the last 12 years she has been on medications to
control her heart rate, aspirin to prevent strokes, surgical procedures
to eliminate the heart rate issues, and had her valve surgically
repaired. Through it all, she has become a high achieving student and
competitive gymnast, which would have seemed impossible, even to her
While this has been a life-long issue for Renae, the last year and a
half has truly inspired me. In October 2011, Renae had her third surgery
to try to eliminate the rhythm issue. When we returned for her follow
up a month later, she was in the abnormal rhythm, but it was at such a
low rate, we didn't notice. Once again the surgery didn't work.
Renae was frustrated with yet another hospital stay and return to
medication. Then she started talking to other kids in the hospital
playroom, including one who had been in the hospital for several weeks
and expected to be there several more. With that perspective, her
attitude quickly perked up. In January 2012, Renae had her fourth
surgery to eliminate the heart rhythm issue (so far successful). She
competed in a gymnastics meet the very next week. Everything was falling
Then, in February 2012, she fell off the high bar during practice and
fractured both bones in her lower right arm. While most kids would have
moped around, she was back at the gym two days later doing leg lifts,
sit-ups, anything she could do to keep the rest of her body in shape.
She even learned how to do one-handed back handsprings with her
non-dominant left hand. Seven weeks later, the cast came off, but she
still was not allowed to do a full practice. When Renae was finally
cleared for practice, she had only one practice left before scheduled
open heart surgery. She gave it her all during that practice.
As we approached the day of her open-heart surgery, I was a nervous
wreck. Her heart defect is so rare, very few surgeons will even touch
it. The doctor was going to have to rebuild her valve and move it two
inches higher, where it should have been in the first place. Renae
wasn't worried at all; she trusted that God would protect and heal her.
She was at peace, and way stronger than the rest of her family.
Her attitude and strength from gymnastics paid off as she was ready to
leave the ICU a day earlier than expected -- they had to scramble to get
a room ready on the regular floor. She had surgery on a Thursday and
was home Tuesday, and was forced to take ibuprofen to control
inflammation even though she wasn't in pain. Six weeks later, she was
off all medications and back in the gym. Within a few weeks she regained
every skill she had before the broken arm four months earlier.
On Feb. 9, 2013, Renae competed in our home gymnastics meet and won
first place in the vault, uneven bars and all-around in her age group
for Level 5 (levels go 1-10). She was shocked and the look on her face
was priceless. A week later, she did it again in a meet in Arkansas, and
with her sisters Jessica and Elizabeth, led her team to a first-place
Renae has overcome so many challenges in her short life. When she won at
those meets, it was a victory over those challenges and a victory over
her heart defect. Her love of life, her fighter spirit and her faith
keep her from staying sad or giving up. I only have to look at my
miracle daughter and realize that I can overcome any setback and do the
things that others tell me are impossible. She is the model of
resiliency. She is my hero.