Heather McNamara is visited by her sister Stephanie and Heather’s...

Heather McNamara is visited by her sister Stephanie and Heather’s dog Maple at New York Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center in April. Credit: McNamara family

Heather McNamara, the Islip Terrace woman who survived and thrived after a groundbreaking surgery to remove a cancerous tumor at the age of 7, died Saturday after a long illness. She was 22 years old.

McNamara had spent months battling a bacterial infection and multiorgan failure, according to her mother, Tina McNamara. She rebounded after numerous challenges, including going into cardiac arrest and being put on life support.

“She pulled through but she never recovered,” McNamara said. “So many people prayed with us. We believe in miracles.”

Heather McNamara had defied the odds before. As a young child, doctors found a baseball-size tumor wrapped around several of her vital organs. Doctors at hospitals told Tina and Joe McNamara there was nothing they could do for their daughter. Then they met Dr. Tomoaki Kato at New York Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center in Manhattan, who had pioneered a surgery where he removed several organs from a cancer patient to take out a tumor and then returned them to the patient's body.

Heather McNamara at age 9 in February 2010.

Heather McNamara at age 9 in February 2010. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Heather McNamara, who was 7 years old at the time, had a 50/50 chance of making it through the surgery, which had never been attempted on a child. Her small and large intestines, spleen, stomach, pancreas and liver were removed so Kato could reach the tumor. Because the tumor had badly damaged the stomach, pancreas and spleen, those organs could not be reimplanted.

Her amazing story was the subject of a television advertisement for the hospital, where the little girl with big brown eyes recounted the experience of her lifesaving surgery.

McNamara survived the 23-hour procedure and returned to school after recovery. Without a pancreas she had to manage diabetes, but that didn’t stop her from living a full life that included everything from joining the Girl Scouts to being accepted into the National Honor Society and hanging out with friends. As a student at East Islip High School, she was recognized many times for volunteer work and service projects that included creating activity bags to give to children at hospitals. She graduated in 2019.

"We are saddened to learn of Heather’s passing," Paul Manzo, superintendent of schools for East Islip school district, said in a statement. "Her passion for life and love of community was an inspiration to all. In East Islip, we recall her with great fondness and as a leader within our halls. We send our condolences to her family at this very difficult time."

She worked as an emergency medical technician at Exchange Ambulance and planned on becoming a paramedic.

“She impacted so many people,” Tina McNamara said.

During the last few months at the hospital, Heather McNamara won over the staff with her enthusiasm and beaming smile. Even in her final weeks, she managed to special order hair bands for all the nurses. They helped her go outside the hospital for a visit with her beloved golden retriever, Maple.

McNamara shared a special bond with her older sister Stephanie, who insisted on celebrating her birthday with Heather in her hospital room. Determined to make Heather part of her wedding, Stephanie held the ceremony next to her bed.

“She called everybody 'lovey' and 'sunshine,'” Stephanie McNamara said. “No matter how sick she was, she always had a smile. She was kind to everyone … she never ever let being sick hold her down. She lived her life the way she wanted to do it, on her terms.”

Tina McNamara said that when people have asked what they can do to honor her daughter, "We told them to do an act of kindness and say it in memory of Heather McNamara."

A viewing will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday at Chapey and Sons Funeral Home in East Islip. A funeral Mass is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Friday at The Church of St. Peter the Apostle in Islip Terrace.

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