NAUGATUCK — Second-grader Olivia Thompson pushed her wheelchair with pride into the rear entrance of Western Elementary School on Thursday morning.
She joked with staff and Principal Brenda Goodrich before heading in to do what she hasn’t been able to for six months — just be a kid.
Five months after having a life-saving heart transplant, Olivia, 7, was in high spirits as she went back to school. A wheelchair-accessible bus drove her to a back door past pink balloons, a sign welcoming her and toward a sea of students, teachers and staff who were donning pink — Olivia’s favorite color — and waiting to greet her.
“She was really excited to go back,” said her father, Wally Thompson. “She had a great time sitting with her best friends. Even though she’s not running around like she normally does, she is upbeat and working to get back on her feet.”
At 9 a.m., Olivia was met by an aide who will help her throughout the school day until she gets stronger. There is little doubt, too, in the mind of those who know her that Olivia will, indeed, get stronger. She has a proven track record already.
Olivia was born with a heart issue that doctors told her parents wasn’t something they needed to worry about. Last summer, she began having noticeable symptoms of heart failure.
In the fall, she went to Yale-New Haven Hospital for heart valve surgery, but her heart was too weak and she began entering into cardiac arrest, Wally Thompson said. She was resuscitated after seven minutes in cardiac arrest and was immediately transported to Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital of New York-Presbyterian in New York City.
Olivia was placed in a medically induced coma and on life support for six weeks because her stomach wasn’t taking food, Wally Thompson said. She was also placed on a Berlin Heart, a tiny heart pump that maintains blood flow in babies and small children with serious heart failure.
At the end of November, the Thompsons heard the news they had so desperately awaited — Olivia had a heart donor.
She underwent surgery on Nov. 25 and all indications thus far are that her body has accepted the transplant.
“She has to go for a biopsy every three to four weeks where they take pieces of her heart to check for signs of rejection,” Wally Thompson said. “But so far, everything has come back great.”
The Thompsons — including Wally; Olivia’s mother, Christy; 3-year-old Sophia; and stepbrother Shane Harrison, 20 — are thankful for the miracle they have received.
“Just sitting down and having dinner as a family is something we are so much more thankful for now,” Wally Thompson said.
Their gift of a heart was from someone they know little about. They know it came from a little girl who wasn’t expected to live past birth. Her parents were encouraged to abort the baby, but they chose not to and the girl defied the odds, Wally Thompson said.
“We know that she liked music, ice cream and baseball — so she was old enough to do those things, but we don’t know much else,” he said.
The family members, who say they have been overwhelmed with the community support, have sent photos of Olivia to the donor’s family through the American Heart Association; they have not heard back.
All signs indicate that the Thompsons will have many more heartwarming photos to share in the near future.
On Wednesday night, Wally Thompson said, Olivia was outside playing with her electric powered Barbie car in the neighborhood.
“All the kids came by; it was like nothing had changed,” he said.
On Thursday morning, Olivia was telling a reporter all about the photos everyone sent her while she was in the hospital.
“There were so many!” she exclaimed. “It was great.”
And by Thursday afternoon at recess, Olivia got out of her wheelchair — her legs are atrophied following the induced coma — and she used her walker to stroll around the playground without a care in the world, said Goodrich, the Western School principal.
“I was so nervous, but she’s amazing,” Goodrich said later in the day.